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How I'm Learning to Manage Stress as Someone With Chronic Illness


Chronic illness and stress often travel along together. But, it is not a particularly valuable partnership. Stress is important for survival; it’s an adaptation for when we are physically endangered. It gets the hormones into action so you can fight or flee. This has many automatic physiological effects. But stress that has no real physical outlet has to go somewhere!

I am good at stressing. I have a personality that might be described as a “worrier.” As a more elderly adult (68), I have learned many strategies to limit the impact of being a worrier. Strangely, I am also fairly optimistic. I really believe I will be able to deal with whatever is happening… eventually. My favorite affirmation or saying is from Abraham Lincoln: “You can be as happy as you make up your mind to be.” I try to remember this each day and live by this.

 

But, it is that “eventually” that causes me problems. During that time of reaching “eventually,” stress can really build up. Stress build up brings muscle tension, headaches, agitation, impatience, insomnia, etc. I am sure everyone with chronic illness will totally get this!

It takes time for me to work though things. I like to know as much as I can about my chronic illnesses: asthma, diabetes, Hashimoto’s disease, depression and anxiety. I have to delve into issues in depth. “Mr. Google” becomes my best friend. All that data! Overload! And then the possible misconceptions I acquire from all this well-intentioned research can cause even more difficulties and stress.

An example of when it all went awry was when a new doctor I consulted, an integrated health GP, noticed a thickening on the palm of my hand. She told me how, in time, my fingers would form a claw and it would eventually be operated on. Well, I got home and started to stress. So I started Mr. Google. But, I couldn’t remember what she called it. My limited medical knowledge brought me to a diagnosis that some of you on this site may actually have: scleroderma. Well, I thought, another hurdle. Another really tough illness! But, no, what she actually said was it’s a contracture. No big deal after all that stressing.

Getting stressed also makes me impatient. I want solutions. I want action. And, I want this ASAP. Now, this is also so counterproductive. Pushing towards solutions with a chronic illness is a sort of an oxymoron. The very nature of “chronic” means no real solution, no real answer and definitely nothing quick. It is the opposite of fast and instant and now!

Chronic illness doesn’t have instant or immediate action, except of course during a medical emergency. It requires patience.

Patience.

1. Patience with getting a diagnosis. Took nine months for me. I read of it taking a lot longer than that for many people!

2. Patience with family and friends: repeated explanations! Two years later, I still need to explain hypoglycemia from type 2 diabetes, how quickly it happens, how dreadful I feel and how drained it leaves me.

3. Patience in waiting for all the medical appointments. (I always bring a book or game on my phone plus water and a snack – diabetes management.)

4. Patience with myself. I like to plan to do a few things each day. I must be kind to myself even when I can’t do them!

5. Patience with trying different medications to find what will work best.

6. Patience with accepting the side effects that accompany managing your illness and the side effects of these drugs.

7. Patience with medical professionals. My illnesses have made me acutely aware of how complex the human body is and just how much we do not know!

8. Patience with my own emotions. Diabetes can cause emotional mood swings, and so can prednisone – and I am now on a huge dose! Accept when I weep, accept the tantrums, accept the impatience. These are physiological responses, not personality defects!

9. Patience with “foggy brain.” Now this is one thing I really dislike. I do things that don’t make sense, I say things that don’t make sense, I can’t find the right word, I can’t remember things. All of these things can aggravate stress levels… I have become a keeper of lists and notebooks, I now use the calendar on my phone. I cannot rely on my memory. And if I stuff up, so what! It isn’t usually life-threatening anyway.

So, all that good advice to manage stress levels and to de-stress is important for me to to remember. I am not always so good at the doing though. Being stressed is like trying to push an immoveable object and getting annoyed because it is staying still!

Stress feeds itself. It exhausts you. It makes it harder to deal with chronic illness; stress just aggravates my illness.

I wish I could hold this in my heart and mind… 68 years of habits and thinking are hard to change.

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Thinkstock photo via jacoblund.