Why Stress Management Matters When You Have A Chronic Illness

Why Stress Management Matters When You Have A Chronic Illness

When we’re stressed, it lays the foundation for chronic illness to flourish.

I was in my second semester of grad school at the University of Michigan when it started.  I was sitting in class when I felt the most intense piercing, throbbing pain in what felt like my shin bone. It was so intense, that I almost stood up in the middle of the lecture and yelled, but I did my best to bite my lip, close my eyes and wait until the pain stopped a few minutes later.  That day became the start of a complete change in my life, as the pain would continue to increase in intensity, frequency and presentation and I would get diagnosed a couple months later with some pretty serious and mysterious conditions.

Unfortunately, when we get diagnosed with a chronic illness – something we’re going to have to learn to live with for a long period of time or even for the rest of our lives – we’re automatically experiencing one of life’s top stressors. When we experience not only the stress of chronic illness but all the other stress in life (related and unrelated) and it goes unchecked, this can make managing your chronic illness very difficult, induce flares or promote disease progression.  These increased symptoms can be hard to get back under control once stress is reduced. Poor stress management can also lead to other illnesses coming to the forefront and a gradual wear and tear on us physically and emotionally.

Perhaps for you, It’s been difficult to find ways to manage this chronic stress and reduce it, which can lead to a downward spiral of physical and cognitive symptoms, depression and feelings of frustration with how to better your situation.

It’s true that stress is a part of living with chronic illness. However, if we can learn to build up our resiliency to stress while also reducing unnecessary stress in other life areas, we can greatly reduce our overall Allostatic Load, or the repeated wear and tear our body experiences in response to stress, to make managing our illnesses easier. When we have a stress management plan it is entirely possible to manage your illness with ease.

Keep reading to learn how to stress affects your chronic illness.

What Could Happen If I Don’t MAnage stress Appropriately?

The biggest downside of not managing stress is leading to your disease getting worse or at least not able to improve.  At the very least, you find yourself with exacerbated symptoms or the inability to control them.  Living this way is extremely frustrating and can create a roller coaster of not only physical symptoms, but the emotions of dealing with an unpredictable presentation of symptoms.

When I was in grad school, I had just finished the most stressful semester of the program – the first semester, where you are learning to adjust to expectations, manage the work load, the program demands and also trying to make ends meet.  I was experiencing some doubts internally about whether I fit into this environment since the program was rated number 1 in the country and the financial aspects of being at a top rated school.  I was and still am, the only person in my family to graduate from college, let alone attend graduate school in a top rated program.  The stress was so intense, I considered quitting first semester, but some wonderful professors talked me out of it, ensuring me that my blue collar family history and experience added value and diversity to class discussion. In order to succeed, I had to work 1) the required internship hours at a local community center, 2) a work study program that paid me and allowed me to work on homework, 3) freelanced as a family portrait photographer as time allowed, 4) contracted as a social worker for a local youth program.  Going to grad school full time plus working 4 jobs creates a significant amount of stress and are, what I believe, laid the foundation for my body to start attacking itself.

During the 16 months I was in the program, I broke up with a significant other, moved twice (and was almost homeless) and had very little social support. It’s no wonder my body responded the way it did.

When it comes to chronic illness, I have found, that most of us can look back and find some significant stress in our life that could have created a ‘happy place’ for it to thrive and flourish.  So what happens when our illness presents itself and now our stress has increased?

We have to start taking a good, hard look at our lives and make our health the number 1 priority.

For the next 2-3 years, I would struggle to learn this valuable life lesson the hard way, which is why I’m sharing it with you now.  You see, I decided, despite my physical pain, chronic fatigue and cognitive decline, that I would still move across the country and pursue a salaried position as a school social worker. I kept my physical struggles inside and shared them with almost no one.  I’m sure you can guess what happened: It led to me struggling at work, socially isolated and misunderstood and some severe bouts of depression and panic.  I was suffering – all so I could hang onto who I USED to be, and what my body USED to be able to accomplish.

What will managing stress better do for me?

Although chronic illness brings with it a struggle with stress, depression and anxiety, we have the potential to problem solve and find great solutions for any problem that comes up. When we choose to implement stress management effectively, we can approach any situation with less stress and anxiety and maintain our chronic illness management strategies that help us function and live our lives to the fullest.

We do this, through finding healthy coping skills that allow us to approach stressful situations with confidence in our resources and ability to handle them. According to Lazarus, coping refers to ‘cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage disruptive events that tax the person’s ability to adjust.’    Chronic illness can pose a number of life stressors including loss of physical and social functioning, alterations in body image, managing difficult and complex medical regimens, and chronic pain.  Our judgment about how well we will be able to cope with these changes, determines how we actually cope with them.  If we feel overwhelmed and unprepared, we will react with fear and worry, whereas if we feel we have the tools we need to face the problem and resolve it, we will be more likely to problem solve and have better outcomes. THIS is where stress management comes in!

Depression, stress, and other mental health conditions may negatively affect a patient’s chronic disease management capabilities more than the disease itself, according to a study published in Quality of Life Research. Further, results suggested that psychological distress impacts a person’s’ quality of life as much, or more, than having a chronic condition such as diabetes.  In order to address disease management, we must first tackle our stress.

The first thing I did to manage my stress, was to stop keeping my struggle a secret.  I finally broke down and told my supervisor that I had been ill for over a year and was struggling to make sense of it all.  I sought out therapeutic support to process all that I was going through and to help me problem solve decisions related to this new life that was forming. I sought out accommodations at work and even navigated joining social support groups that allowed me to hold space with others who shared in my struggles.

Over time, I learned that managing a chronic illness can be stressful, overwhelming and scary, but it doesn’t have to be.  You can prepare and plan ahead which helps you problem solve any issues you may not consider when your time and options are limited. Today, at Imagine Life Therapy, I help clients work through all the fears, worries and stresses related to disease management, so they can worry less and feel prepared for just about anything that comes their way.

Do you need help creating a stress management plan? I’m here to help! 

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