Living Well With Chronic Illness
Though there is a dizzying variety of possible medical problems, they break down into two categories: acute and chronic. An acute medical problem is one that can be treated and cured, like an infection or a broken bone. If you follow the directions of your doctor for treating the problem and there are no unusual circumstances, this acute condition will be cured, and you will return to your usual life activities. Over time, your memory of the details of the problem and treatment will fade. The next time you have an acute problem, you expect that it will also be cured.
A chronic problem is one that cannot be cured. It is a problem the patient can expect to have throughout his or her life. The leading medical problems throughout the world—and especially in developed countries like the US—are all chronic illnesses: cancer, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. (In some instances, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems can be reversed through diet and lifestyle interventions—in many cases, though, they are truly chronic conditions.)
The symptoms of these and other chronic problems can often be treated to provide comfort to the patient. The underlying chronic problem, however, is not curable. As the problem develops over time, it may become more difficult to treat the symptoms as the chronic problem affects more systems of the body.
The difference between “disease” and “illness”
People frequently use the terms “disease” and “illness” interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing. Knowing the difference between the two terms will help you understand how to use natural procedures to improve your mental and physical health and spirituality. Please understand that healing, the way I am using it here, is not the same as “cure.” It means healing mentally and spiritually, improving your quality of life despite the existence of a chronic medical problem.
A disease is a name (like “diabetes”) given to a detailed description of a set of abnormal physical, chemical, and biological processes occurring in the body. These names are used as verbal shortcuts to facilitate faster communication between medical personnel.
Illness refers to the body’s reactions to the disease. These are things that either can be measured or are felt by the patient. We call these signs and symptoms. When you arrive for your appointment with a doctor, a nurse or technician will first measure your blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and possibly your rate of breathing before the doctor sees you. These are your vital signs or “signs of life.” When the doctor asks you, “How do you feel today?” he or she is asking about your symptoms.
The shock of a chronic disease diagnosis
You came to the doctor’s office because of lingering symptoms that just won’t go away. Perhaps you have had these symptoms for quite a while but ignored them, hoping that they would disappear. They didn’t, so here you are, finally, waiting for the doctor’s opinion. The doctor says, “You have a chronic disease.” The shock of this pronouncement is like a boxer hitting you full force in the stomach. The emotional impact sweeps over you, releasing multiple negative emotions: fear, anxiety, sadness, despair, anger, and grief. You feel as if everything you’ve planned for the future has been violently taken from you. Combined with all the practical things that you need to take care of (e.g., how to pay for an endless stream of additional expenses, scheduling doctor visits into your daily activities, the impact on income, and so on), it is easy to become overwhelmed.
The negative emotions that accompany a chronic disease diagnosis can be harmful to your mental and physical health, specifically to your immune system, which is your primary defense against sickness. Fear can be paralyzing and keep you from moving forward to see options and a better future. Anger wastes precious energy, energy that is needed to push back against your disease and illness. The grief associated with the diagnosis is very difficult to deal with because you are grieving for yourself and all that has been lost: the long-awaited special vacation, a new job, a child’s graduation or wedding, or the retirement you’ve been planning for so long.
Controlling negative emotions naturally
The appearance of negative emotions following a chronic disease diagnosis is a normal reaction. However, they create an emotional burden that can hinder or even block your ability to fight against your disease. They are like large stones in a backpack you are carrying: if the weight is too great, you will become emotionally immobilized. You can get rid of this excess emotional baggage using natural methods—without the use of medicines.
The first and most critical step to better mental health is to assume responsibility—imagine that you are the captain of the ship Good Health. Once you have chosen a destination (better mental health), you broadcast your decision to the crew (healthcare team, caregiver, family, and friends). Now it is up to them to bring the ship to your chosen destination. You may not realize that everyone on your healthcare support team is an advisor. This includes doctors, nurses, physical and occupation therapists, your caregiver, accountant, family, friends, and everyone else involved in your healthcare.
Your role is more fundamental: you are the decision maker. It is up to you to accept or not accept their advice based on the healthcare destination you have chosen.
The next step is to directly confront the emotions that are causing the most trouble. The following is a list of some of the most common problematic emotions and what to do about them:
>> Fear: There are important benefits to letting go of fear. The first benefit is a sense of relief from releasing a heavy weight on your mind. You may have hidden your fear from others. Letting go of fear helps you share with others what is really happening in your life. It is only then that they can help you move ahead. Controlling and getting rid of fear reduces your stress level, which is good for your health.
>> Anger: The stressful fight-or-flight reaction is triggered by anger and is very harmful to you mind and body. Replacing anger with “a calm mind and a peaceful heart” will reveal opportunities that anger prevented you from seeing.
>> Self-grieving: The diagnosis of a chronic condition inevitably causes an immense sense of loss: you might feel the loss of future hopes, dreams, aspirations, and plans. You might look back on life before the diagnosis and grieve for yourself. The acronym SARA stands for shock, anger, resistance/denial, and acceptance. It describes the process by which a grieving person moves from shock to acceptance. Grieving is not eliminated: rather, you accept what has happened and move on with your life.
The mind leads and the body follows
Negative emotions can create a mental condition that lowers your resistance to risky habits that harm your health, like smoking, obsessive eating, alcohol and drug abuse, and so on. The emotional success you gain by controlling negative emotions can nurture a positive attitude which motivates you to adopt healthy lifestyle habits like getting enough sleep, exercising, and doing something enjoyable every day.
Good mental and physical health can be used to enhance your spirituality and achieve a meaningful and fulfilling life. It’s up to you to make it happen, naturally.
Richard Cheu is the author of Living Well with Chronic Illness: a Practical and Spiritual Guide. He is also a stress-management consultant, an ordained Catholic deacon serving in the Archdiocese of New York, a hospital chaplain, and in his 10th year as caregiver to his wife. Prior to ordination, he was a neurophysiologist and an emergency medical technician.