How To Cope With Chronic Health Conditions

If you have been diagnosed with a chronic health condition, you’re not alone — nearly half of U.S. adults have one or more of these illnesses.

Chronic conditions are diseases that last for a year or more. These conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer, cause ongoing symptoms that have long-term effects on your life. A chronic condition may make it hard to work, go to school, or spend time with loved ones, or it may require you to make more frequent trips to the doctor or a hospital. Overall, these disorders impact your sense of well-being.

While there may not be a way to easily eliminate all of your health-related hurdles, you can learn strategies that help you cope and live better in the face of health challenges.

Sources of Stress

When living with a chronic medical condition, stress may attack from multiple directions. Stress may be related to:

  • Confusion about what your diagnosis means
  • Not being able to guess what your health or your life will look like in the future
  • Experiencing ongoing pain or tiredness
  • Feelings of frustration that you can’t do all of the things you want to do
  • Changes in your self-image or self-confidence levels as your body undergoes physical changes
  • Feelings of guilt because you worry that your lifestyle choices contributed to your condition
  • Dealing with a disability caused by your chronic condition
  • Worries about how you’ll pay for extra medical costs

These stress-related factors can build up. Many people with chronic health conditions also develop conditions like anxiety or depression.

Watch out for signs of stress when you’re dealing with a major health issue. You may develop additional pain or feel even more tired than usual. You may get headaches, feel nauseous, or clench your jaw. Try to pay attention to your stress levels and take extra steps to take care of yourself when you’re feeling especially overwhelmed.

Dealing With Your Diagnosis

After finding out you have a long-term illness, your initial instinct may be that you don’t want to know all of the details. However, learning as much as you can about your condition can help you better manage it. Some studies have found, for example, that people with chronic diseases have a better quality of life when they made a plan to actively address their health.

Read articles online from trusted sources and get advice from your entire health care team. Make sure to follow your treatment plan. When you don’t take your medications or follow your doctor’s recommendations, your health may decline.

In addition to disease-specific treatments, lifestyle changes may help. These habits probably won’t cure your condition, but they may help you have more good days. Ask your doctor about what a healthy lifestyle looks like for you. Your provider may recommend:

  • Eating foods that contain a lot of different nutrients
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Learning to say “no” to things that aren’t working for you
  • Making regular plans with friends and family, whether it’s a fun outing, a house visit, or a simple phone call
  • Getting used to accepting help from friends and family when you need it

Support groups can also be a great lifeline when you’re struggling. Connecting with others who share your diagnosis allows you to give and receive advice and empathy from people who have been in your shoes. You can often find virtual support groups online, and your health care team may be able to direct you toward meet-ups in your area.

Try to give yourself grace as you learn to cope with your condition. Some days will be worse than others. You may feel more hopeful for a while, and then go back to feeling sad, angry, or afraid. Over time, managing your illness may not feel so tough as you develop more coping tools.

How To Cope With Chronic Health Conditions

Learning To Live Well

When living with a chronic condition, it’s important to take care of your physical health — but you also need to make time to work on your mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

Taking care of yourself may mean different things at different stages. Sometimes, it means doing the hard things that you don’t want to do but will make you feel better in the long run, like going on a walk, cleaning up your bedroom, or going to bed early. Other times, it may mean letting others help by tidying your living space or running an errand for you. In some cases, taking care of yourself involves feel-good activities that get you out of your head and bring a sense of comfort or relaxation. You may want to try:

  • Practicing meditation through an exercise focusing on deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness
  • Having your own private dance party with your favorite music
  • Getting a massage or learning some self-massage techniques
  • Keeping your hands busy by popping bubble wrap, solving a Rubix cube or playing with fidget toys
  • Learning a new hobby such as baking, drawing, or crocheting
  • Solving a jigsaw puzzle, sudoku, or crossword puzzle
  • Watching a comedy special
  • Rereading a favorite book
  • Taking a warm bath before bed

You won’t always be able to give yourself all of the support you need. When times get really tough and you start to despair or feel completely overwhelmed, it may be time to reach out for professional help. Counseling options such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you deal with anxiety and depression, sort through your feelings surrounding your illness, and learn skills that help you cope.

Reach out to friends, family, or your health care team when you feel that you are struggling. You don’t have to manage your journey alone!

By Mo McNulty

Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. She has spent over a decade researching the genetic causes of — and possible treatments for — multiple types of cancer. Maureen is now a medical writer who is passionate about helping people use science to enrich their lives.