How to Manage the Impact of a Chronic Illness

All optimal coping strategies begin with acceptance. Without managing an adjusted perspective of what's happening, it's difficult to take action. How can this be done?
How to Manage the Impact of a Chronic Illness

Last update: 28 July, 2022

A chronic illness has implications at extremely diverse levels. Their incidence, multifactorial nature, and the fact that they generate a limitation in the quality of life have made them a real challenge, economically, politically, socially, and personally.

You might ask how you can possibly manage a chronic illness. Indeed, why should you have to manage something with which you’re not satisfied, especially when it considerably affects your quality of life? However, life has a habit of showing you that there are certain facts and variables over which you have little control. Chronic diseases are one such example.

Next, we’ll review what it really means to accept a chronic illness, so that you don’t confuse acceptance with resignation, passivity, and defeatist attitudes. Then, you’ll learn how to face it.

Man with neck pain due to chronic illness

Acceptance

Acceptance means taking what’s offered to you, accepting what life brings you: taking it completely, at the moment it is given, without defending ourselves” (Hayes, 2013). It happens when you accept that something has occurred, with all its likely implications.

Acceptance can be a vital affirmation. In fact, it’s a great adaptive exercise when it helps you make decisions that really help you improve your quality of life. “Acceptance is really a different way of being in life, of living kindly and with an open heart with our inner landscape, with what happens to us and fully embracing it”. (O’Connell, 2018).

Therefore, with acceptance, you open yourself to reality, to your existence, and to the changing circumstances in which it unfolds. The opening to which it leads you isn’t about self-defeating behavior, nor about suffering and enduring pain. Rather, it consists of engaging with the moment as it is. It involves giving space to your emotions, feelings, and thoughts without trying to control or resist them.

Not resisting is the essence of acceptance. It means not opposing the flow of life. When you assume the attitude of accepting what happens to you, you don’t fight or resist, because that only adds incessant pain to the one you’re already experiencing.

It’s important not to equate acceptance with resignation. Resignation is a way of being passive, where you experience a cognitive and emotional disconnection from what happens to you. It means doing nothing and watching life go by in front of you. On the other hand, acceptance drives you to move and change to achieve your goals and live a worthwhile life, despite adversity.

How to accept a chronic illness

Being open to chronic disease, not resisting it, and accepting it, doesn’t mean that nothing should be done to treat it or seek improvement. Indeed, doing nothing to change the situation isn’t accepting it.

When you accept it, you recognize the reality of your disease and you can actively start to change it, if possible. If not, then you can seek new ways of relating to it so that it doesn’t prevent you from living a full and meaningful life.

Next, we’ll review some key points to accepting a chronic illness.

1. Let go of the struggle and stop resisting

Having a chronic illness is a difficult experience that can become a battlefield if you end up losing your way. The constant fight can cause you to lose sight of the value of your life thus you relegate it to the background.

Ceasing to struggle and resist means crossing the threshold of control and the desire for everything to happen as you want and expect. It means letting go of your ideas of what an illness should be. Chronic conditions are uncontrollable and lasting. With this context in mind, is it worth resisting and wearing yourself out fighting the inevitable and the uncontrollable?

Letting go doesn’t mean you forget about your illness or resign yourself to it. It means not allowing it to continue to dominate the way in which you live and experience your life. It’s there, but it no longer determines your existence or experiences.

When you stop resisting, you set aside struggle and control and live your life as it is, in the here and now. Thus, the first step in learning to accept a chronic illness is to let go of your resistance and control and begin to reconnect with your life and the values that guide it and give it meaning.

2. Connecting

Learning to accept a chronic illness means going against your usual patterns of behavior in the face of adversity. For example, you’d usually try to control the situation or avoid it so you don’t have to deal with unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

On the other hand, acceptance requires connecting with all those unpleasant sensations, with your discomfort, pain, and suffering. You look at and feel your adversity without putting up any unnecessary resistance because that only ends up further aggravating what you’re experiencing.

Connecting involves being aware of and fully engaging with your chronic illness. Awareness means coming off autopilot and stopping the fighting, controlling, or avoiding. Instead, you focus on the present, dislocating it from the past (‘that was my life before’) and the future.

In order to connect, it’s useful to take a few minutes of silence and stillness to feel your body and the unpleasant sensations and thoughts that emerge. Face your tension and stress head-on and take the time to see what it’s like to feel your illness in a non-resistant way. You need to delve into the moment. Ask yourself if there’s resistance in any part of your body. What happens when you connect with how you’re feeling?

The Tibetan practice of Tonglen (“giving and taking or sending and receiving”) can be extremely helpful as well. This is how you carry it out.

  • Remain for a few minutes in a receptive state, observing your breath.
  • Visualize your illness, taking into account the discomfort it produces.
  • Breathe in your discomfort and the unwanted, and breathe out a sense of relief.

3. Open up

Openness to experience is based on not being attached to your suffering or to the ideals of how your life should be. Opening up signifies remaining with your hand open, accepting what life brings you, and letting go of the rest.

Being open makes it easier to let go and connect since you hold nothing back and accept what happens. Your openness to the disease doesn’t involve being indulgent or wallowing masochistically in it and its discomfort. Instead, it’s about allowing yourself to feel it through compassion.

Research claims the components of self-compassion (self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness) can generate adaptive actions in the face of adversity and perceived difficulties in the context of living with a chronic illness.

Woman with eyes closed

4. Mindfulness

Mindfulness can have positive psychological effects, such as increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms, emotional reactivity, and better behavior regulation.

Through mindfulness, you bring your attention to the here and now with openness, receptivity, and curiosity. In fact, if you have a chronic illness, mindfulness can be an effective way to develop acceptance. That’s because mindfulness itself implies a commitment to the present moment and to life as it manifests itself in the here and now.

In addition, practicing mindfulness also helps reduce your anxiety or stress associated with the disease. As it’s an activity that focuses you on the present, it takes your attention away from worries about the future. In effect, you relocate yourself to the here and now. This weakens your manifestation of anxiety which feeds on the future and its inherent uncertainty.

Finally, accepting a chronic illness isn’t easy. That’s because, by doing so, you also take on its implications. However, letting go, opening up, and connecting with the vitality of the moment allows you to move, in the midst of illness, more effectively toward what you really value.

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