5 Ways to Keep Your Mental Health In Check If You Live With a Chronic Illness
Often when you’ve been diagnosed with a lifelong chronic illness, your focus is on the physical symptoms. The question of what can be done about it now and how you can manage your symptoms… physical symptoms. But how often do you think about the impact on your mental health after receiving the diagnosis? I know I certainly didn’t think about it at all.
When I was diagnosed, I was 21 and straight out of college. I had a boyfriend and it didn’t even occur to me to question what might happen 10 years down the line. My focus was on the now and getting the physical symptoms under control so I could get on with my life. So what happens when 10 years down the line they don’t get better? When, in fact, things get a lot worse, you’ve lost most of your support system and you’re told that you’re almost out of options? Well, that’s when you realize you probably should have been looking after your mental health a lot better.
That’s where I was in September last year. From the outside, it may have seemed like I was coping as usual and nothing was different, but inside, I was sad. Really, really, sad. I couldn’t even explain it to anyone. People would hear about the situation with my physical health and say, “I don’t know how you’re coping,” or “I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t be able to handle all those treatments,” or “you’re so brave.” I know all of these comments come from a good place and it’s more the fact that friends and family just don’t know what to say, but I find it so confusing. I’m not especially brave and what’s the alternative? To not have treatment? To not get up every day? To not fight to get better? Of course you would do it too. This perception of being brave is an interesting one. Was I brave because I didn’t show the impact it was having on my mental health? If I have one regret about this illness, it’s that I tried to deal with it all by myself and didn’t ask for help sooner.
Last year I found out I was running out of options to control my Crohn’s disease and I’m currently waiting to see if I’ve been accepted into the stem cell trial– it’s my last option. My last chance to get better. My mental health took a sharp decline, I was thinking terribly bad thoughts and I realized I couldn’t ignore it anymore. It’s still not better and I still have extremely bad days, but I want to share five of the things that have helped me over the last eight months to have better days, in the hope that it might help someone else too.
1. Talk to your doctor.
I know that’s an obvious one, but for many (including me) it was the hardest step! It was actually my hospital consultant that forced me to. She could see I was lying when I said I was okay and I truly thank her for pushing me to do it. I made a general practitioner (GP) appointment with someone I didn’t know and sat terrified in the waiting room. Starting the conversation was hard, but 15 minutes later I felt enormous relief. Telling someone that I wasn’t coping — someone who could actually help me — felt like a huge weight being lifted off of me.
2. Keep a mood diary.
I bought a little notebook and started carrying it around with me in order to record the things or moments where I felt happiness, and the ones where I felt sadness (and all the feelings in-between). I wanted to find out if I had things in my life that were triggers or making me feel worse. Writing down when you have a significant mood shift and the reasons why will often show you a pattern.
3. Note everything that brings you moments of calm and joy.
I started to make a list of things (big and small) that gave me moments of calm and feelings of joy. From yoga, to having a quiet cup of tea, to visiting my favorite places, to unfollowing a lot of people on social media, to watching my favorite shows — I had quite an odd list of things! But having this list written down meant that I knew what I could do if I started to feel low. I was aware of what would make me feel better and was better able to avoid the things that didn’t.
4. Go outside.
If you’re able to, get outside and do anything. Anything that means you get fresh air, a change of scenery and a different perspective. I love being outside and know my mental well-being declines when my physical health means I can’t do much. In those times, I try to avoid social media because I know seeing everyone else enjoying being outside will only make me feel worse. There’s a lot of research that shows how being outside and getting exercise can be good for mental well-being and if nothing more, it helps you think about something else for a short while.
5. Find yourself a support system that works.
For everyone, there will be times when friends come and go — it’s almost like a natural part of growing up and drifting to new directions. You might be lucky and have friends that grow with you and are still in your life today. But if you don’t, that’s OK too. Sometimes people we know the least can turn out to be our best support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to strangers too — there are lots of support groups full of wonderful people with different life experiences. Having a support system looks different for everyone, the main thing is that it works for you.
Unsplash image by Autri Taheri