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How Chronic Illness Affects More Than Just Your Physical Health

COPD Basics

January 20, 2023

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Photography by Andrea Fernandez/Stocksy United

Photography by Andrea Fernandez/Stocksy United

by Nia G.

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Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

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by Nia G.

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

•••••

The nonphysical effects of living with a chronic condition are often ignored or underestimated. We need to change that.

Chronic illnesses and long-term health conditions often come with many physical symptoms. They also can have a significant effect on your emotional and mental health.

When it comes to understanding the way chronic illness can change a person’s life, it’s important to consider mental health. People with chronic illnesses are more likely to live with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Too often, the nonphysical effects of chronic illness are ignored or underestimated. There seems to be little awareness about the specific ways that a chronic illness can affect someone’s life, beyond its physical impacts.

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It affects your social life

Living with a chronic condition can make it harder to socialize frequently. Because of this, when you live with a chronic condition, it can feel like you often miss out on events.

Making friends when you live with a chronic illness can also be hard. It can be more of a challenge to meet new people if you find yourself not being able to go to events or be in public spaces. It can also be difficult to find friends who are understanding, open, and willing to adapt social plans to accommodate your needs.

For me, canceling plans because of symptoms sometimes makes me feel guilty, even though I know it’s not my fault. I also have a lot of anxiety about making plans.

All of this can contribute to someone with chronic illness feeling more disconnected socially. This can also contribute to feeling isolated or lonely.

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It affects your career

Because living with a chronic condition limits the amount I can push myself, I have had to adjust the hours I am able to work and my career goals.

Career goals can be a defining factor in our lives and your job can feel like a part of your identity. Feeling like you cannot pursue certain ambitions can come with feelings of grief, frustration, and even anger.

It can be especially difficult to work, or even find a job when you’re newly diagnosed or are actively trying to figure out how to manage your condition. Depending on your physical needs, finding a working environment that’s accessible can also be a challenge. For me, the hunt for a job that was accessible was very stressful.

It affects your sense of identity

Your life might look very different after you’re diagnosed with a chronic condition. It isn’t uncommon to feel a sense of loss of identity when navigating the changes that occur in your life.

Learning to build a new sense of identity while adapting to the challenges that come with a chronic illness can be really difficult.

Having to stop or limit activities that once played a large part in your life, and brought you joy, can feel confusing and upsetting.

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It affects your financial stability

Living with a chronic condition can mean spending an exorbitant amount of money. The costs of copays, medications, equipment, procedures, and devices really add up. This means that someone with a chronic condition often has greater expenses to factor into their finances.

This can be made even more difficult if you aren’t able to work for a period of time due to your symptoms.

This loss of financial stability can be overwhelming and daunting.

It can come with medical trauma and PTSD

The process of being diagnosed with a chronic condition can involve stress and trauma. Navigating changes to your health while living with a chronic condition can also be stressful and traumatic. Being in a medical setting can feel overwhelming.

These experiences often have long-term impacts. Sometimes people feel strong emotions resurface when they find themselves in similar medical settings months or years later. Past trauma can make the frequent appointments, tests, and procedures associated with living with a chronic condition really difficult to endure.

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It can be difficult to get accommodations

Whether in schools, workplaces, public areas, or hospitals, I’ve found that it can be difficult to get my needs met. Often these places are not made accessible for people living with different conditions or disabilities.

Learning to advocate for myself, and speak up about what I need, was a stressful process. I felt so guilty, like even just asking for accommodations was an inconvenience for someone. In reality, it’s the inaccessibility that is the true inconvenience!

It can come with grief

Being diagnosed with a chronic illness can come with a lot of loss. For me, navigating my diagnosis involved confronting the loss of my nonsymptomatic body, my ability to make spontaneous plans, having enough energy to get through the day, my career goals, my social plans, my financial stability, my independence, the life I thought I would have, the way my body used to look, the hobbies I loved, and the ability to trust my own body.

The grief that comes with a chronic illness is continuous. Over the years, I’ve continued to face losses due to chronic illness. This sense of grief can be incredibly saddening and difficult to cope with but I’m not alone. Grief is one aspect of living with a chronic condition that I hear others speak about most.

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It affects your independence

Being chronically ill can affect your ability to care for yourself, do household chores, support yourself financially, and stay on top of medication. When you live with a chronic illness, you may need to rely on the help and support of others.

It’s important to remember that there’s no shame in this whatsoever.

Nevertheless, sometimes it can feel embarrassing to ask for help. It can feel like you’re being a burden. It has been hard for me to confront this loss of independence when I want to be able to do things for myself.

Feeling less independent can also impact your feelings of self-worth. It can take time to accept that asking for help is not a sign of weakness and you are not a burden.

It affects your body image and confidence

The medical changes that come with a chronic condition can change someone’s appearance. These changes can include hair loss, weight loss, weight gain, scarring, stoma bags, or the use of mobility aids.

These changes can cause anxiety or make us worry about how others perceive us. This can really shock your confidence.

A change in appearance can be hard to come to terms with. The process of coming to terms with your changing body can be a lengthy process.

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How to cope

Navigating life with a chronic condition can be hard. For me, living with a chronic condition has impacted my mental health along with my physical health. These are some of the things that have helped me cope with the impacts.

  • Join an online community. Or join a support group to connect with others who understand what you’re going through.
  • Try to surround yourself with supportive people. When possible, do your best to reduce contact with those who make you feel worse or make you feel judged about your condition. Anyone who doesn’t accept and support you for who you are is not worth your time.
  • Try therapy. Different forms of psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and psychodynamic therapy can help you understand, validate, and regulate your emotions. Some therapists even specialize in working with people with chronic conditions. Therapy can be expensive, here are some ways to get support regardless of your budget.
  • Read up about your own condition. Being informed and empowered with knowledge about your condition can help you feel more confident and less anxious about medical appointments. Learning more can also help you learn about your options for managing your symptoms.
  • Learn about internalized ableism. Many people living with chronic conditions don’t realize that they may be experiencing internalized ableism. This is the process of having negative thoughts about yourself which are rooted in ableist beliefs like: “resting is lazy,” “I’m useless because I don’t work,” or “I’m a bad friend because I couldn’t go to that party.” Being able to understand and recognize internalized ableism can help you practice challenging those ways of thinking.
  • Validate yourself. Acknowledge that what you’re going through is hard and would be hard for anyone. Remind yourself that you are trying your best. It isn’t selfish to prioritize rest and self-care.

The bottom line

These are just some of the many ways living with a chronic condition can affect your emotional and mental well-being.

We need to spread awareness about the nonphysical impacts of chronic illness and advocate for better mental health services to support people living with chronic illnesses.

Medically reviewed on January 20, 2023

2 Sources

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About the author

Nia G.

Nia is a chronic illness and disability advocate from the United Kingdom. Living with many conditions herself, Nia founded The Chronic Notebook platform on Instagram in 2019, now with 18K followers and growing. Since then, she has used The Chronic Notebook across online channels to spread awareness and educate others on issues around chronic illness and disability. In 2020, Nia won the ASUS Enter Your Voice Competition, receiving a grant to fund projects related to her work. Nia continues to work with charities and companies with illness and disability as their core focus.

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