9 Tips for How to Cope with a Chronic Illness or Disability
Updated: Nov 17
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
If you have a new chronic illness or disability or if you have been dealing with health issues for some time now, it’s never too late to learn coping skills that might help you deal with this major challenge in your life.
The goal of this post is to share some tips and ideas that could be useful as you manage your health and mental health. You don’t need to try all of these at once – see what feels like a good fit to you and start there.
1. Pace yourself
Before you were diagnosed with your chronic illness or disability, you may have been used to doing things a certain way – perhaps with greater speed, energy, and motivation. You may feel like you have to compete with your former self or prove to yourself that you can do it just like you did before.
Give yourself permission to not do everything exactly the way you used to. Recognize that you are still the same person – abilities and challenges in all – and go at a pace that suits you best based on your current situation.
2. Focus on energy conservation
Similarly, you may even need to figure out when to hold yourself back in times when you need to rest before a day of medical appointments, travel, work or volunteer work (modified or not), or a social engagement. Perhaps you are a morning bird or a late night owl - or maybe this all changed after your diagnosis and you are adapting to a new internal shift.
Learning what makes you feel energized or drained is a good first step. This will help you determine when you need to put on the brakes and when you can push yourself. Monitor how your energy ebbs and flows depending on the time of day or type of activity and try to use that as a guiding principle for how you structure your day, including fitting in time for rest.
3. Be a good self-advocate
Educating yourself about your new needs, asking questions, and speaking up when something concerns or worries you are important skills to learn as you adjust to your new chronic illness or disability.
If you feel nervous at the thought of using your voice, perhaps it may help to give yourself a pep talk or an encouraging internal monologue before a medical appointment or difficult conversation. Or bring a trusted loved one to an appointment if you feel you need moral support or a little prompt every so often to share your point of view. Knowing that someone is there who has your back can mean the world in a hard scenario.
4. Speak kindly to yourself
You can learn to be your best friend. How do you do that? Well, you can start by speaking to yourself in a positive, supportive way. Let go of the self-critical statements and instead choose to use words that reflect you just as worthy, loveable, deserving, and important as anyone else.
Remember: your chronic illness or disability doesn’t make you any less of a person. You are still you. Your health issues don’t define you. You do.
5. Do what makes you happy
It can be hard to turn your attention to positive things when you are feeling sad, lonely, frustrated, or demoralized. But that’s when you might need to the most. Bring to the forefront of your mind what makes you happy, fulfilled, motivated, and energized.
Is it spending time with loved ones? Being with your pet? Being in nature? Creating art? Listening to music? What else? Tune into yourself and find ways of bringing these things back into your life even if it is incorporated a little differently now compared to your pre-illness or pre-disability life. Adding these things back in can make a difference in boosting your daily mood and outlook on life.
6. Pursue activities that align with your skills and abilities
If there are activities you used to do that you now can’t as it presents a significant risk to your health - or if you cannot do it anymore from a physical/mental/emotional standpoint - then maybe you can explore these activities in a modified or adapted way or possibly find a related activity that is more feasible and that you feel will still be enjoyable. Choose something that is not as demanding of your energy or endurance or perhaps fits more with your current abilities. Take some time to think about what fits best with you at this present time and start there.
If your job used to be very physically involved and this is not possible anymore, maybe there are other tasks in your job that you can perform that is more desk-based. You may of course also decide to take a completely different direction in your career and that is ok as well. Listen to what you need and honour it.
You may also want to join new in-person or online communities where you can meet people who are going through similar challenges as you. The peer support they provide can be extremely valuable to you, especially if you are adjusting to a new health problem.
7. Move towards acceptance
Adjusting to a new disability or chronic illness can be a very difficult process. You are going to understandably grieve all the things you could do before your diagnosis. Perhaps you are also grieving major changes you will need to make regarding your living environment and your career, or you may now depend on health professionals or family to do some of your basic personal care tasks.
Ever so slowly, you will eventually reach a place in your mind and your heart where you come to terms with what has happened to you. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to be happy about it. But recognizing how it affects you and what you need to do to live the best quality of life you can will help you navigate these difficult times that much more easily.
8. Enjoy the little moments
Nestled between moments of pain and sadness will be little moments of joy: hearing a good result at a medical appointment; being able to complete a physical exercise successfully; having a good day in terms of minimal pain or fatigue; doing something you previously couldn’t do; enjoying quality time with a loved one.
Hold on to these moments as they are important for keeping your eyes focused ahead and on your future rather than turning to look backwards at your past.
9. Remember your wins
Just as you will want to enjoy the little positive moments, you will also want to remember your wins as well – both big and small. Recalling your strengths, what you do well, what you are capable of, and what you are looking forward to are all important factors in building you up and helping you maintain your momentum.
Consider these wins as signs that you have so much to give and so much to gain as you move forward. Keep going one step at a time.
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
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