How to Cope With Multiple Chronic Illnesses

4 min read
Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

Source: Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

“How do you do it? You live with migraine, POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and two herniated discs in your lower back?

“What?! You also lived with severe endometriosis before a total hysterectomy and a follow-up surgery so the doctors could remove the live tissue left behind?”

“Well, how do you do it, living with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Crohn’s disease?”

These are the plights of me and one of my close friends. I’m sure if you are reading this post, you have your own scenario or a loved one who does.

Any of us who lives with multiple chronic illnesses faces the realities of the very definition of chronic: Chronic diseases are defined broadly as conditions that last one year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.

If we have the flu, a “bug,” or even something like an urinary tract infection, we may be greatly affected in a variety of ways, but we know that without further complications, we will be cured and likely return to our previous health status. If living with chronic illness or illnesses, though, we can instead develop additional symptoms and long-term consequences, some physical and some psychological. Not only do we suffer then, but so do our family and friends.

Several chronic illnesses bring with them fatigue and anxiety, both of which can affect us in so many ways:

  • Overwhelming fatigue
  • Mood disorders
  • Additional medications and their accompanying side effects
  • Difficulty in maintaining physical and psychological health
  • Uncommon stress and anxiety
  • Depending on your condition you may gain or lose enough weight that your appearance changes, which can, in turn, affect your self-image.
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Decreased strength and stamina
  • You may not be able to work normal, expected hours.
  • You may not be able to sit for extended periods of time, without opportunities to stretch, exercise, or at least move around.
  • You may suffer financial consequences that exasperate the physical and psychological effects of your conditions.

So, for those of us suffering from several chronic illnesses, how do we cope, how do we help others understand, and how do we maintain hope for a better future?

The obvious response is to find the appropriate health care, but that often means a specialist for each of the separate illnesses from which we suffer. The problem is that the medical specialists are not always able (or willing) to communicate with each other. The ideal response would be to have one medical professional who understands each of us as a whole patient, and who could oversee the labyrinth of symptoms, medications, side effects, and treatments. Again, this would be ideal, and we know we sometimes wait for weeks or months to see each specialist, and it’s increasingly difficult to see a general practitioner, as well; we often see a physician’s assistant on most visits. Medical professionals are overworked and in many areas in short supply.

Given these limitations, the question remains: How can we cope? There are no easy answers, no “one size fits all” solutions. I can only share some of what works to ease the pain and its consequences:

  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Try to stay physically and mentally active.
  • Ask for help.
  • Join a support group.
  • Seek professional counseling.
  • Let go of the obligations that you can, and learn to say no to others.
  • Stay in touch with family and friends, even when you must sacrifice some time with them when you are unwell.
  • Explore stress relief activities like gentle yoga and meditation.
  • Take a walk outside.
  • Listen to your favorite music.
  • Try starting your day by focusing on what you are grateful for.
  • Read a good novel, short story, or poem related to your illness, so that you know you are not alone.

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