I was diagnosed with a chronic illness over a year ago, and my life was turned upside down.
I was in my prime: a health-conscious runner who was enjoying her life. Then, out of nowhere, my heart was constantly racing, I felt light-headed, and I could barely stand.
I couldn't drive, I was unable to go to work, and most days I struggled just to get off the couch. I was confused and terrified because I didn’t understand what was wrong or how this could happen to an otherwise healthy, young adult.
I eventually learned that I have a type of dysautonomia called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which basically meant the automatic functions of my body were no longer doing their job.
While I still grapple with daily symptoms and limitations, I have since gained some strength and am training my body to better handle walking and standing in small doses. I may not have all the answers to heal my body physically at this time, but I am no longer terrified and can overcome the emotional and mental struggles that go hand-in-hand with long-term illness.
It has taken me a lot of trial and error, and some days I do better than others, but here are the seven coping strategies I have learned from this experience.
1. Give yourself permission to slow down.
Our society encourages a fast-paced life with little sleep and high stress. When you're ill, you need to allow yourself to shift gears. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t keep up the pace with those around you. There's no magic bullet for healing, and giving yourself deadlines for feeling better will only add undue stress.
2. Practice gratitude.
Being grateful allows you to focus on positivity. Identifying what you are currently thankful for will help take the magnifying glass off of your suffering and encourage you to see your blessings. A support group I am a member of does this weekly by practicing “Thankful Thursday.” We identify what we have to be thankful for and share it with each other. Whether on your own or as a part of a group, write down what you are grateful for so you can revisit it when you are struggling to stay optimistic.
3. Find an open door.
As the old adage goes, when one door closes another one opens. When illness puts your life-as-you-know-it on pause, identify an opportunity that may not be possible otherwise. Do you have a list of books you’ve always wanted to read but never had time? Has writing always been an ignored passion of yours? Instead of focusing on what you can no longer do, find something you can do.
4. Surround yourself with support.
Having friends and family standing by your side is a great source of strength. Those who have stuck by me, emailed, called or visited have helped to renew my spirit when things were rocky. Illness is no time to have to worry about maintaining toxic relationships. Distinguish your true friends and loving family members and keep them in your inner circle.
5. Be honest about your feelings.
If you're struggling physically or emotionally, don’t keep it bottled up inside. Pushing down your feelings or putting on a perpetually brave face will just lead to further stress. Be honest with yourself and those around you about how you are feeling. While remaining positive is a strong source of healing, if you are struggling with the negative realities of your condition, face it head on. Discuss your pains, fears and emotions with those close to you or journal about them. This will help you to release them and be able to move beyond them.
6. Make time for prayer and meditation.
No matter what religion or belief system you follow, dealing with a crisis like illness is a good time to cultivate your spiritual life. Spending time in prayer or quiet reflection is an effective way to reduce stress, find meaning in suffering, let go of fears and build up hope. Personally, I am a Christian, and I have used my illness as a time to strengthen my relationship with God. By praying or reflecting on Bible verses, I am able to take the burden and need for control off my own shoulders and place it in the hands of someone greater than myself. This has been very freeing and has helped me to better accept my current circumstances.
7. Focus on the now.
When you become ill for an extended period of time, it's natural to worry about the future or to focus on how things “used to be.” Learning from what has happened and cherishing the memories you have are both constructive uses of the past; however, longing for yesterday, or focusing on what your life was, can be detrimental. Similarly, worrying about what struggles, symptoms or unpleasantness may be lurking around the corner will keep you in a state of fear and anxiety. Try to keep yourself living in the moment and just take baby steps each day, as you are able.