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How to live healthier with a chronic illness
Focus on small daily changes to improve your well-being, reduce stress and find joy.
Learning that you have a health condition you may need to manage for a long time can be extremely difficult. You might be afraid for your health or unsure of what day-to-day life will now look like. You might also feel alone in your diagnosis. But many others face the same thing. More than half of Americans live with at least one chronic illness. And 42% have two or more.1
Chronic diseases are medical problems that last one year or longer. They also need ongoing care and may limit daily activities.2 Chronic conditions can affect both physical and mental health. And the list of chronic diseases is long. It includes diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, COPD and many more.3 (Asthma and COPD are lung diseases that make it hard to breathe.)
Here are some simple ways to stay positive after a diagnosis.
Give yourself time to process a new diagnosis
A new diagnosis can be overwhelming because it indicates change. This isn’t only a change in a person’s health status, but it likely means changes in medications and daily life as well. Be sure to take the time to own your feelings, and to accept the range of emotions. Keep in mind that it can be days, weeks or months before a diagnosis really sinks in.
“Sometimes emotions can show back up again, even after you think you’ve resolved them. Be patient and kind to yourself,” says Meghan Beier, PhD. She’s an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the founder of Find Empathy.
Give yourself the space to feel whatever pops up. And remember to surround yourself with loved ones.
Optum has mental health resources that fit with your life. Work one-on-one with a virtual coach or therapist from AbleTo. Find support.
Learn about your health problem
Arming yourself with knowledge can be empowering. Understanding your symptoms and side effects can help make it easier to take care of yourself. Talk with your doctor, specialist or health care team about your illness. If you need a doctor you can trust, we can help. Search Optum providers near you.
Try practicing mindfulness. It may help with mental skills like paying attention, organizing and planning. It can also help you stay positive, says Beier. When dealing with chronic illness, the future can sometimes feel uncertain and scary. Mindfulness brings you back to the now. You focus on what’s going on in the moment. This means looking at both what’s inside you and what’s outside you. Being in the moment can give you a deeper sense of balance. This presence, even in moments of pain, can help improve your overall well-being.
Here are a few more exercises that can help you feel calmer throughout the day.
Get back to your hobbies
People who pursue their passions have an easier time coping.5 “Find activities or events that spark joy,” says Beier. And then include them in your daily routines or do them more often. Getting back into your favorite hobby is a major way to reclaim your life.
It can be hard to see the positive when the fears and concerns about your illness are always on your mind. But this can be a good time to be grateful. Gratitude can help you see your life from a different perspective. Write down the things you’re grateful for every day. Or share them with a friend. It reinforces the positive in your life.
Our brains are hardwired to dwell on the negative. And negative thinking can impact all aspects of our lives. To counter that, make a list of the things your illness prevents you from doing. Then make a list of workarounds for each limitation.
If it’s too painful for you to chop veggies, for instance, get the pre-cut kind at the grocery store. If there was a sport you loved, seek out a local adaptive league. What’s important is to retake control of your situation in small ways. It’ll make you feel more optimistic and less powerless. Learn more ways to cultivate a more positive mindset.
Pursue spiritual interests
Spirituality can be an important resource for coping. It can help people find inner peace and comfort. And it can help you feel more connected and supported by a larger community.
Lean into generosity
When your thoughts are consumed with your own illness, it can be difficult to think of others. But research has shown that giving back can improve your outlook. Do whatever works for you. Volunteer your time or help with a fundraiser. Perform random acts of kindness. These are powerful ways to brighten your mood.
Manage and respect your limits
Work with your health care team to balance where you are now with your future goals. For example, an occupational therapist can help you find easier ways to do daily activities. And they’ll show you how to change activities to make them work for you. This isn’t about trying to get back to where you used to be. All experiences change us in some way, and chronic illness is no different.
Life might not look the way it did a few years ago. But it can be just as fulfilling and enjoyable. Beier adds, “Many people find new meaning and purpose in their chronic illness.”
- Rand Corporation. Chronic conditions in America: Price and prevalence. Last reviewed July 12, 2017. Accessed August 23, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About chronic diseases. Last reviewed May 6, 2022. Accessed August 23, 2022.
- National Association of Chronic Disease Directors. Commentary on Chronic Disease Prevention in 2022. Published 2022. Accessed August 23, 2022.
- Harvard Medical School. 10 steps for coping with a chronic condition. Last reviewed March 16, 2017. Accessed August 23, 2022.
- Social Science & Medicine. Finding joy in poor health: The leisure-scapes of chronic illness. Published June 2017. Accessed September 12, 2022.
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