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9 Pieces of 'Health Advice' It's OK to Ignore If You Have a Chronic Illness

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Doesn’t it seem like sometimes the idea of chronic illness just seems to confuse some people? They might compare it to their own experience with illness, and not realize the vast differences between the flu or a sprained ankle, and a chronic illness that doesn’t have a cure and literally doesn’t go away. Well-intentioned people may believe that their chronically ill friends just need to take care of their health the same way they do — with simple things like diet, exercise and “being happy,” even though these pieces of advice don’t really scratch the surface of more serious diagnoses.

People with chronic illness shouldn’t spend any extra energy thinking about or considering advice that won’t have a big impact on their health, so we asked our chronic illness community to share a piece of health advice they’ve gotten that they’ve learned to just ignore. Every person’s health situation is different, so our friends and family need to understand that the following pieces of advice may not actually be that helpful. If you’ve found that any of this advice doesn’t work for you, know that it’s OK to ignore it. And for more ideas about how to respond to unsolicited health advice, click here!

1. “You don’t need to go to the doctor for every little thing.”

The reality: For people who don’t experience health challenges often, going to the doctor may seem “optional” and even a waste of time. But the truth is that, as the word “chronic” suggests, chronic illnesses lead to frequent sicknesses and flare-ups that cannot be ignored, or else they will turn into even bigger problems. Chronically ill people should be encouraged to seek out help for their symptoms, not ignore them.

“‘You don’t need to go to the doctors for every little thing.’ Maybe you don’t, but my illnesses always turn into something more. And I’m on a biologic which lowers my immune system. And having illness on top of chronic illness wipes me out completely. So yes. You may think I don’t need to go to the doctor, but trust me, I do. I know my body. And it’s different than a regular ‘healthy person.’” — Miranda R.

2. “Stop giving in to your illness.”

The reality: Some people still subscribe to the belief that illness is some kind of moral failing. That’s clearly not true, so it’s offensive to suggest that someone is sick because they don’t have the “willpower” to fight it.

“‘You have to stop giving in to your sickness. If you get up, take a shower and go do something you will feel better!’ Yep that’s the miraculous cure for my fibromyalgia, PFD and other conditions. Why didn’t I think of that!” — Heather S.

Want to talk with others who understand what chronic illness is really like? Download our app to connect with our chronic illness community 24/7.

3. “Pray your illness away.”

The reality: Prayer can be a huge comfort, and if it helps you feel more hopeful and positive, then you should absolutely incorporate prayer into your routine. But it’s important to recognize the difference between praying in support of someone (who you know appreciates prayer), and praying to “cure” an illness that doesn’t have a cure. Friends and well-wishers should be respectful of those they want to pray for and make sure they want their prayers.

“‘Pray the demons away.’ I’ve had people lay hands on me and loudly pray during/after a seizure for the demons to stop hurting me. This is something I’ve been told to do many times. It doesn’t exactly work…  I’m a Christian also but there is a boundary between faith and physical illness. I wish others would understand that.” — Gina L.

4. “You should go back to work, it’ll make you feel better.”

The reality: Again, chronic illness is not just a mindset, so people can’t expect your illness to go away just by recreating circumstances under which you seemed “happier.” Keeping your mind occupied with a job you love is a great idea in theory, but if a chronically ill person isn’t working anymore, you can bet that has more to do with the physical demands of the job rather than their motivation to work.

“‘You need to start working full-time again. You were so happy when you were working two jobs.’ Literally someone told me this after I went to a psychiatric hospital when I try to ignore my own issues by working two full-time jobs.” — Devin C.

5. “You should get out more.”

The reality: Fresh air can perk you up a bit, but it’s certainly not a cure for chronic illness. This advice also ignores the fact that “getting out” can be physically difficult for some people and can lead to more fatigue later on.

“‘You need to get out more.’ A few hours out means three days in. ‘Get more exercise.’ Not beneficial when moving for an hour means we sit for three days. Common advice is meant to keep people healthy. We need different advice when our health is gone.” — Elsie G.

6. “Just think positive.”

The reality: On the surface, “just think positive” may seem like great advice. It’s true that cultivating a positive outlook can make the “lows” easier to deal with and of course feeling happy certainly doesn’t make anyone’s illness worse. But again, this advice implies that illness is a mindset you can “think your way out of.” When people offer this advice, they’re likely not understanding that positive thinking only goes so far when it comes to chronic illness, and you shouldn’t feel bad for not thinking positive all the time.

“This is it in a nutshell. ‘Your thoughts define your reality.’ Yes, how you think has a huge impact on your perception. I don’t deny that. Wallowing or complaining rarely helps, however, just because you think positive doesn’t change the reality that you have severe physical and/or mental illnesses. You can’t just flip a switch… if you can just change how you think and feel better, we’re discussing very different issues. Please understand I think it’s important to embrace gratitude, appreciation, and acceptance. I think they can all help us shift our perspective. At times, however, for whatever reason, we struggle, and that’s OK. It’s life! We are human.” — Kevin P.

7. “You’ll feel better if you stop taking all those medications.”

The reality: Medications are just a reality and necessity of chronic illness. You wouldn’t be taking them if you didn’t need them, and stopping them can be dangerous.

“I’ve been told by more than one person to stop taking all my meds and I’ll feel better. Umm… I’m not taking strong antidepressants for the fun of it. If I went off my meds I would be severely depressed, in immense pain, my heart rate would skyrocket, and I’d probably be in the fetal position with an anxiety attack (not making fun of anyone, only describing what’s happened in the past). This past November marked 10 years since my suicide attempt. I refuse to go back to that hell.” — Amy B.

8. “Just exercise more.”

The reality: For certain conditions, exercise can be useful, but that’s advice you’ll get from your doctor. For other conditions, exercise won’t affect your symptoms much at all, and could even make some conditions worse. People who give this advice don’t understand that not all illnesses are caused by weight and advising someone to “exercise more” is actually a serious medical concern that should really only be addressed by doctors.

“Exercise. It is not a cure all. Losing 10 pounds isn’t going to change any of my chronic illness diagnoses. At this point I do not tolerate exercise and it exacerbates my symptoms. I do what I can when I can. Comments are not necessary.” — Katlyn S.

9. “Have you tried [insert food remedy]?”

The reality: While some illnesses can be affected by diet, any advice that claims a single food can “cure” an illness should be looked at with skepticism. Any major diet changes should be discussed with a medical professional. It’s extremely unlikely any diet advice a layperson could offer hasn’t already been considered or ruled out by the chronically ill person and their medical team.

“As an interstitial cystitis patient I often describe the not-too-well-known syndrome as a bad bladder infection, to which people commonly respond, ‘Oh you should try cranberry juice!’ 1. Did you really just suggest advice for a disease that you learned about less than 10 seconds ago? 2. Diet heavily effects IC symptoms and there are around 10 common triggers for us all that include — cranberries. 3. Anyone who responds after a disclosure of illness with remedies is ignored. If I have to explain to long term researchers how this disease can be treated then I don’t have to listen to someone whose understanding of my illness is limited to the [simplified] version I offered them.” — Margrethe W.

Originally published: December 27, 2018
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