How to Learn to Accept Your Chronic Illness

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 23 October 2017
  • 7 minute read
How to Learn to Accept Your Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

This blog post contains some affiliate links to products you may find useful, at no extra costs to you. All opinions are my own. 

A year ago I wrote a blog post about why acceptance is not the same as giving up. Facing today’s reality doesn’t mean you give up hope for tomorrow. It just means you make the best of the given situation in this moment, instead of trying to change something that cannot be changed right now.

But the question remains: how do you start accepting that you’re chronically ill and may never get fully better again? How do you wrap your mind around the fact that your body, your life, your future are forever changed?

It’s a cliche, but acceptance takes time. It’s a gradual process that has its ups and downs. Emotions may stir up (again) when you enter a new phase in life or a new stage of your illness.

In his bestselling book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra writes:

‘Acceptance simply means that you make a commitment: “Today I will accept people, situations, circumstances, and events as they occur.” (…) 

You can wish for things in the future to be different, but in this moment you have to accept things as they are. (…) Having accepted this circumstance, this event, this problem, responsibility then means the ability to have a creative response to the situation as it is now.’

Accepting chronic illness goes hand in hand with coping; learning how to deal with negative thoughts and feelings. It’s also about partly letting go of the person you thought you were and the life you had envisioned, and make the best of the new reality you’re handed.

How do you do that? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some psychological strategies to help you.

How to Accept Chronic Illness

1. Learning to Deal with Difficult Emotions

When you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness, you have a lot to deal with. Not just the physical symptoms and practical problems, but also a rollercoaster of emotions and worries about the future. How do you learn to cope with things like sadness, anger, resentment, anxiety and loneliness?

First of all, stop resisting or avoiding hurtful thoughts and emotions. Pushing negative feelings away only triggers a vicious cycle: you turn to bad behaviours like overeating to numb yourself, which makes you feel crappy afterwards, leading to more painful emotions you want to avoid.

Instead, take a step backwards. Separate yourself from your thoughts and feelings. Notice there’s a distinction between your ‘thinking self’ (your inner voice, the part of you that has thoughts) and your ‘observing self’ (the part of you that ‘listens’). In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy this is called cognitive defusion. It sounds complicated and vague, but it simply means you shouldn’t get too caught up in the words and images in your head. They aren’t always true and besides, you’re more than what you think and feel.

Now pause instead of immediately act upon your emotions. Breathe. Simply inhale and exhale mindfully.

Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling. Try to notice your worries, frustration or pain without getting (too) upset. Observe your thoughts and feelings as if they were clouds in the sky, drifting by. You’re not trying to change what is or flip-think negative thoughts, you just sit with them. Focus on your breathing, until the intensity of your emotions lowers.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

When learning to accept your chronic illness and the emotional turmoil that comes with it, it also helps to have a support system. Find someone you can talk to and how understands you. If you don’t have family members or close friends you can confide in, join a patient support group, find fellow spoonies online or talk to a health care professional. Sharing how you feel in a constructive way can help you release stress, come up with practical solutions and redefine who you are.

How to Learn to Accept Your Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

2. Self-Acceptance and Rewriting Your Story

When you become chronically ill and you lose the ability to work, socialize and do the things you love, your sense of self changes. Everything you used to think about yourself is challenged by the new limitations of your body. Can you still describe yourself as an outgoing, dedicated professional when you haven’t stepped foot into the office or pub for months?

Your life story is an important part of your identity, and every big transformation requires a new personal narrative. So how do you rewrite your story and learn to accept yourself?

  • Don’t fully identify yourself with your body, your looks and limitations, with the roles you play and the relationships you have. You are all of it and none of it. What’s even more important: you are not your illness. Having a chronic illness can have a huge impact on your life, but you’re also still an individual with hopes and dreams and funny quirks.
  • Speaking of dreams: take time to grieve the plans you had for the future that will never come true. It hurts to realize you may never get a job, have kids or travel the world, and it’s ok to mourn that loss. So be compassionate with yourself.
  • Silence your inner critic. Stop comparing yourself to others and to your former, healthy self. You can only be the best version of your current self. So don’t focus too much on your weaknesses but celebrate your strengths.
  • “Grow through what you go through.” It’s the ingredient of every timeless story: the hero finding meaning in tragedy and uncovering his or her hidden potential when they are put to the test. Real life is a little more complicated than that, particularly when you find yourself in the midst of chaos. But it’s helpful to learn from all the parts of your life’s journey, even – or especially  – the ugly parts. The biographies of some of the greatest people in history don’t read like a summation of facts; they’re narratives in which events are picked apart and weaved back together into lessons to make sense of life. And the good news is, you can rewrite your story too.
  • Ask yourself: what’s really important in life? Spending time with loved ones, going on big adventures, making the world a better place? Clarifying your core values makes it easier to build a new life and identity around the things that truly matter to you. When you have a clear vision of how you want to live life with chronic illness, you can set doable goals and start taking action to achieve them.

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3. Adapting to Uncertainty

Like India Arie sang: “The only constant in the world is change.”

This couldn’t be more true when it comes to living with chronic illness, with the unexpected flare-ups, new obstacles to overcome every day and not knowing what plans the future may hold. How do you deal with this level of uncertainty, without constantly worrying?

According to writer Michael J. Gelb, one of the reasons Leonardo Da Vinci was such an unparalleled creative genius, was his willingness to embrace uncertainty. In his book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Gelb challenges readers to exercise their uncertainty muscles. Where in your body do you feel uncertainty? How do you react to the sensation, physically, mentally and emotionally? How many times a day do you use words that express an absolute, like “never”, “totally” and “always”?

Also remember that certainty and control are an illusion. No one knows what will happen and how things will turn out. But when you have chronic illness, life becomes even more unpredictable and you probably feel less equipped to deal with change.

Still, trust on your ability to cope. You got this. On your own or with a little help, with a smile on your face or tears in your eyes: you will get through it. If you struggle to believe in your strength, think back to times when you succeeded in doing something you didn’t think was possible. Get support. Experiment with different practical and emotional coping strategies to deal with anxiety and uncertainty.

Finally, try to change your perspective. Michael Gelb advises to see ambiguity and change as an exciting prospect, but that might be asking too much when you’re chronically ill. However, uncertainty may have a negative sound, but it simply means that anything can happen, including positive scenarios. That’s what makes true hope possible: having a destination in mind, but staying open to all roads that lead you there, even if it’s a different journey than you had in mind.

Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” – Albert Einstein

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like Why Acceptance Is Not The Same As Giving Up or Illness and Identity: Redefining Who You Are When Your Health Changes.

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