Healthy Mama

12 healthy ways to cope with a chronic illness


In 2007, Tami Stackelhouse, then 35, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that caused pain throughout her body, brain fog and extreme fatigue.

“I remember thinking, ‘If I could just close the door, turn off the lights and lie down on the floor of my office, I would be asleep immediately,’” Stackelhouse, of Tigard, Oreg., said.

Eventually her condition worsened, even forcing her to quit her job as a customer service manager, file for disability and spend day after day lying on the couch.

After months of searching for answers and working with her doctor, a turning point came when she found a health coach who helped her change her diet, find ways to be more active, reduce stress and get enough sleep.

“One of the things we came up with was a mantra of  ‘Every day that I do what I need to do, I’ll feel a little bit better,’” she recalled. 

With supportive family members and friends by her side, along with meditation, journaling and prayer, Stackelhouse found strength she needed to pull through each day until her symptoms subsided.  

And in the process, she learned how to be kind to herself.

“Changing my attitude towards myself was the number one thing that made it all happen,” she said.

Receiving a devastating diagnosis or dealing with a chronic condition is no easy feat. In fact, studies show that approximately one-third of people with chronic illness also deal with depression.

The good news however, is that if you have a chronic illness, there are some simple strategies you can do to feel strong, calm and positive.

1. Don’t blame yourself— or your body.

When you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness, it’s common to view your body as the enemy or feel angry and blame yourself as though it’s your own weakness that is preventing you from healing.

Try to see the illness as the enemy instead and recognize that your body is working as hard as it can to support you even it’s sick, said Toni Bernhard, the Davis, Calif.-based author of “How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide.” Bernhard has been living with a chronic illness for 15 years.

“Everyone struggles with his or health at some point in their lives and to blame yourself only adds mental stress and suffering on top of the physical difficulties you’re already facing,” she said

2. Use Google wisely.

Information is power, but if you’re obsessive by nature, you’ll get stuck, said Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., an internationally-renowned psychologist in Farmington Hills, Mich. and author of “The Road to Calm Workbook: Life-Changing Tools to Stop Runaway Emotions.”

It’s OK to research reputable sources about your illness but if it’s causing you anxiety, put a time limit on it or ask a friend or partner to help you weed through all of the information and narrow down what’s important and relevant.

3. Find acceptance.

“If you spend your time denying where you are and being angry about it, it keeps you from taking constructive steps to make things better for yourself,” Bernhard said.

Instead of looking too far into the future, think about what you can do now, within your limitations, to be happy. And say to yourself, “I don’t like it, I don’t want it, but I can handle it,” Daitch said.

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4. Focus on the positives.

When all else feels hopeless, it can be hard to stay positive, but it’s important to build “positive expectancy,” or a belief that things will get better, Daitch said.

When you know the illness is short term, it’s much easier to do, but even if you’re facing a long-term illness, you can still come up with things to focus on so you’ll stay positive.

5. Be kind to yourself.

Instead of putting yourself down when things get hard, be understanding and compassionate with yourself. Think about what you might say to someone else in need and use the same kind words when you speak to yourself.

6. Assess your support network.

Family and friends might feel uncomfortable or afraid of your illness. What’s more, some may not have the patience to deal with the unpredictable nature of your life, while others may not want to believe that you’re sick especially if you look perfectly healthy.

Although you can certainly try to educate them about your condition, if they can’t be supportive for you like you wish they were, forgive them and wish them the best if you decide to part ways.

“Holding bitterness and anger in your heart just makes you feel worse,” Bernhard said.

7. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness and meditation are effective ways to stay present and restore a sense of calm. In fact, meditation reduces anxiety, fatigue and pain in women undergoing breast cancer biopsies, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

To start a meditation practice, notice the thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body, but don’t fight or judge them. Instead, imagine them floating away like balloons.

“Although the goal is not necessarily for it to have it go away, indeed, if you move into the kind of calm, curious detachment, it usually does soften,” Daitch said. 

8. Visualize health.

Visualization and guided imagery are powerful ways to calm the body and the mind. Try this: imagine your body as a symphony with many sections and instruments. Although one instrument might need to be tuned, focus on the healthy parts and say to yourself, “There’s strength within. There’s a part of me that’s strong and it can help other parts,” Daitch said.

9. Ask for a hug.

Studies show that sharing a hug with a loved one can help lower blood pressure, ease stress and boost oxytocin, the love hormone. What’s more, hugging may even prevent stress-induced illness, a recent study in the journal Psychological Science found.

10. Get support.
Reach out to other people you can confide in, those who have dealt with a chronic illness and/or find strength in public figures who inspire you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help either, whether it’s a friend who can help run errands or cook meals for you or a mental health counselor you can talk to on a regular basis.

11. De-stress.

Walking, yoga, aromatherapy and humor are all great ways to reduce stress and restore a sense of calm and well-being.

12. Set boundaries.

It’s natural for family members and friends to offer unsolicited advice or words of wisdom, but if it’s unwelcomed it can make you upset. Recognize that whatever they offer comes from a place of love and instead of reacting simply say, “Thank you, I’ll think about it.”

Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at