Managing a chronic health condition like diabetes, Crohn’s disease, or rheumatoid arthritis isn’t just about taking your medications or avoiding triggers that cause flares. It’s also about keeping your stress levels in check. While it may seem insignificant, constant worrying can actually mess with your immune system, digestion, and sleep, leaving you feeling even worse, according to the (NIMH). Keeping your cool won’t always be easy to do, though—and we get that. For many, living with a chronic condition means worrying about uncomfortable symptoms or squeezing in doctors appointments in the middle of the workweek.
That’s where these eight coping mechanisms come in. They’ll make living with a chronic condition a bit easier, and may just improve your physical health outcomes, too.
Managing a chronic condition often means working closely with your healthcare provider, so it’s important to find someone you like and feel comfortable with. “A strong patient-doctor relationship can help ease any unnecessary stress. A good place to start is by asking your primary care provider if they have any recommendations,” says Marc Bernstein, MD, a gastroenterologist who treats chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease.
There’s a lotof information out there on the steps you might be able to take to improve your health—from making dietary changes and adopting stress management techniques to getting more sleep. But trying to overhaul your life all at once can be overwhelming. “You’ll quickly burn yourself out,” says Susan Masterson, PhD, a health psychologist with Sjögren’s Syndrome (an autoimmune disorder that causes dry eyes and dry mouth).
Rather than attempt tons of changes in one fell swoop, she recommends talking with your doctor about which one can have the most significant impact. Start with that, then move on to something else.
Take a walk, ride your bike, or make plans to play basketball with a friend. Just 30 minutes of daily movement may be enough to lift your spirits and lower your stress levels, according to the NIMH. It also just might make your condition more manageable, findings suggest. Just be sure to get the green light from your doctor first. If your condition makes it harder to be active, consider working with a physical therapist to find exercise options that will be safe and enjoyable for you.
Yes, your friends and family are there for you. But they don’t really get what it’s like to not be able to button a shirt because your fingers are too stiff, or worry about the toilet clogging every time you use the bathroom at someone else’s house. And that can sometimes feel pretty isolating.
Research suggests that connecting with others who share your diagnosis (or a similar one) can help you feel less alone—and maybe even give you a fresh perspective on the issues you’re dealing with.
Regular sessions with a therapist or psychologist who specializes in chronic illness can be a worthwhile investment. “You’re probably dealing with frustration, a sense of disconnection with your body, the pressures of living in an ableist world, the torture of the medical system, and the ways that people around you invalidate, question, and misunderstand your illness,” says Karen McDowell, PhD, Clinical Director of AR Psychological Services. A mental health professional can help you work through allof these issues (and more), so they take up less space in your brain.
Draw or paint, take up an instrument, keep a journal, or just dance around in your living room. Creative activities are proven pick-me-ups that can fight feelings of stress and depression and even ease symptoms in those with chronic diseases, Pennsylvania State University research shows. And you don’t have to be a natural Picasso or Mozart to reap the benefits. All you need to do is have fun.
It’s easy to worry about an upcoming medical test or whether your symptoms might flare up at the worst possible time. Next time you notice that happening, take a deep breath and bring your attention back to the present. A few minutes of mindfulness can slow your racing thoughts, helping you feel calmer and more in control, Masterson says. Over time, that could add up to a greater sense of wellbeing overall, an Australian study found.
Coming to terms with the fact that your condition may not be curable isn’t a failure—it’s freeing. “Many people cling to the goal of getting back to where they were before, which may not be realistic,” McDowell says. Instead of wishing that your body behaved differently, consider simply being okay with it as it is. “When you’re working on acceptance, you’re learning how to let yourself be where you are,” she says. “You’re being kind and compassionate to your body.” And often, that’s the best coping mechanism there is.