by Peter Waite
Anxiety and chronic illness often go hand in hand. When I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and later Sjogren's Syndrome, for example, I had to learn how to deal with having a name for the pain that had plagued me for so long, and I had so many questions about what this pain meant. How would it affect my relationships? Would anyone believe it was real? Would I ever be able to live a normal life? I was bombarded by anxiety regarding the answers (or lack thereof) to these and other questions that raced through my head.
Chronic illness does not exist in a vacuum. Many people who suffer from chronic illness or pain also experience some level of anxiety or other psychological distress. In fact, they are three times as likely as those without chronic illness to show the symptoms of anxiety. There are several signs that your illness has triggered anxiety:
- Constant worry over the effects of your illness
- Sleep disruptions, such as insomnia or nightmares
- Noticeable change in mood when discussing health
- Panic attacks triggered by thoughts about what the future holds
- Avoidance of social outings
- Avoidance of discussions or treatments associated with your fear
- Increased, intense thoughts about dying
Rather than give in to these symptoms, you can fight them. You may be tempted to put your anxiety on the back burner or think of it as less important than dealing with your illness, but it is in your best interest not to ignore it. By employing the following coping strategies, you can manage your anxiety level and take back some of the control over your life that is rightfully yours.
1. Assemble a Solid Whole-Health Team
It takes a village to handle chronic illness, and that includes any problem that develops as a result of it. Surround yourself with a fantastic medical team that treats you as a whole person. Your main physician should consult not only with the specialists involved in your physical treatment but also your therapists and counselors who are treating your anxiety about chronic illness. If you are treating your psychological issues with medication, it is especially important to loop your prescriber into the conversation about your overall health, particularly if your various health care professionals are considering medications that may counteract each other or otherwise mix badly. Knowing that there is a team of professionals dedicated not just to your illness but also to any potential fallout from it can help ease some of the fear you're feeling.
2. Maintain Healthy Relaxation Practices
Medication is not the only way to handle anxiety and stress. Your psychologist is likely to suggest various practices that help you relax in order to manage your anxiety. I find that mindfulness brings me back to my center, uniting my mind and body with a noticeable calming effect that reduces my overall fear. You may find practicing yoga or meditation to be useful. Controlled breathing techniques can be helpful in both avoiding and interrupting panic attacks. Whatever method you use, finding an outlet to release stress and relax your mind can help alleviate your fear.
3. Fight Against Negative Thoughts
When you have a chronic illness, it can consume your thoughts, and it's easy for those thoughts to turn negative. You may start focusing on worst case scenarios, which just intensifies your anxiety. A certified counselor or therapist can help you work through your negative thinking patterns. Therapists can teach you strategies for:
- Recognizing negative thoughts when they occur
- Analyzing the origin of those thoughts
- Challenging the validity of negative thoughts
- Replacing them with a healthier outlook
4. Keep Track of Your Successes
While thinking about everything your illness keeps you from doing can increase your anxiety, conversely, taking notice of everything you accomplish in spite of your illness can help ease some of the fear associated with chronic pain. Keep a journal wherein you track your daily, weekly and monthly successes. Every evening, I make a list of the healthy choices, such as exercise or keeping a doctor's appointment, that I made that day. If seeing your results in numerical form is more appealing, you can keep a chart where you list good habits and place a tally by each day that you engage in them. By noticing everything that you're doing right, you can regain some of your sense of balance and control.
5. Surround Yourself With Support
When you hear your doctor say your diagnosis out loud, you may assume that your family will be there to support you every step of the way. Chronic illness, however, can be difficult for family members to understand, especially if they don't have any personal experience with an ongoing condition themselves. While family and close friends may do their best, you can benefit greatly from the support of people who are going through the same kinds of challenges you are. Support groups can offer help to shake some of the fear around your illness by surrounding you with community. They can even direct you to useful resources. Whether you choose an online or face-to-face group, it's important to seek out the support you need.
Chronic illness fears can make you feel alone, but you don't have to face them by yourself. Through the use of helpful coping strategies, treatment from qualified professionals and support of family, friends and support groups on your condition, you can fight the fear brought on by your illness and the anxiety it causes.
Peter Waite, M.S., M.A. is founder and CEO of HealingWell.com, and holds graduate degrees from Utah State University and Brandeis University. Founded in 1997, HealingWell.com is the foremost support community on diseases, conditions, and chronic illness. HealingWell.com has been featured by BBC Online, USA Today, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Industry Standard, Reader's Digest, PBS.org, Forbes.com, and USA Weekend Magazine. HealingWell.com has also been the recipient of numerous health industry awards. He enjoys spending his free time with his wife and four children.