Therapy Can Help You Cope With Chronic Illness. Here’s How.

A woman with a chronic illness sits up in bed, forlorn, needing therapy to cope

Chronic illness can be extremely challenging. Therapy helps by providing a safe space to discuss your illnesses and learn coping skills that will improve your quality of life.

Key takeaways:

  • Almost half of Americans experience chronic illness.

  • Chronic illness is an ailment that lasts for a year or more and usually requires ongoing medical care. It can disrupt multiple areas of your life.

  • Being proactive and making lifestyle changes helps improve your quality of life.

  • Watch for signs and symptoms of chronic stress, and get professional help if necessary. There are multiple types of therapy available for people with chronic illness, including support groups, individual therapy, and couples and family therapy.

Since the pandemic started, our society has been talking about health more than ever. Almost half of Americans – 45% – have at least one chronic disease. Whether you are living with arthritis, diabetes, an autoimmune disease, heart disease, asthma, or some other form of chronic illness, there is no denying that receiving such a diagnosis is a life-changing event.

Dealing with chronic illness can be exceedingly challenging. People with chronic illnesses typically experience higher rates of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Therapy can help immensely by providing a safe space for patients to discuss their illnesses and learn coping skills that improve their quality of life. We discuss how therapy can help you cope more in-depth below.

Defining chronic illness

A chronic illness is an illness that lasts for a long time, usually one year or more. In most cases, you will need ongoing medical care. Having a chronic illness can impact your ability to care for yourself and complete your activities of daily living, such as showering, feeding yourself, or caring for your home, depending on the severity of your disease.

With an acute (short-term) illness, such as the flu or a cold, you know that you will feel lousy for a few days and then get better. With chronic illness, you may unfortunately never regain your health, even though you may have good and bad days moving forward. It's not uncommon for chronic illness to “flare” and vary in its presentation and symptoms from day to day. This can be extremely disruptive to your life.

Ways to cope with chronic illness

As with anything, it’s always better to be proactive instead of reactive. Taking early action can help you manage the stress and symptoms of your illness before it becomes overwhelming or debilitating. Making lifestyle changes can have a beneficial impact on your emotional and physical health.

While lifestyle changes are by no means a cure-all, they can help you regain a sense of control over your life. Making helpful lifestyle changes can also improve your quality of life.

Here are some lifestyle changes to consider:

  • Eat nourishing, healthy foods daily

  • Consider medications to help manage moods if your doctor recommends it

  • Avoid unhelpful coping strategies such as overeating or drinking alcohol excessively

  • Move your body and do as much physical activity as you can tolerate

  • Utilize stress-relieving activities like meditation, yoga, or tai chi

  • Ask for support when you need it

  • Stay social and engaged with your family and friends

By reducing chronic stress, moving your body, and nourishing it with healthy foods, you are being proactive in improving your quality of life.

How do I know if I should get help?

Having a chronic illness creates a lot of extra stress in your life. Some of those sources of stress are:

  • The chronic illness itself

  • Medical bills and financial struggles

  • Disability

  • Not knowing what the future has in store

  • Fear of flares/disease progression

Chronic stress can create many symptoms as well, including physical ones, that may be difficult to differentiate from chronic illness symptoms. Symptoms of stress can include, but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety, sadness, and feeling tense

  • Fatigue

  • Insomnia or sleep disturbances

  • Being irritable or relationship difficulties

  • Cognitive issues

  • Generalized body aches and pains, like headaches

  • Losing interest in activities

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to see a professional for an evaluation and seek help. There are multiple kinds of help available for people with chronic illnesses.

What kind of help is available?

Over 133 million Americans are affected by chronic illness. You are not alone. There are multiple options to help support you, including support groups, individual counseling, couples counseling, and family counseling.

  • Support groups: Support groups are helpful because you and the other group members have a shared experience that helps you relate to each other. You can learn new ways of thinking about and approaching your situation from the other group members – and teach others in the group new coping skills. Support groups help create a sense of solidarity and emphasize that you are not alone. Foundations and organizations dedicated to your specific disease can usually help you find a support group specific to your condition or illness in your area.

  • Individual therapy: Individual therapy allows you to address your challenges in a one-on-one setting. Participating in an individual setting does not mean that you also can’t participate in other settings; to the contrary, you can attend multiple modalities of counseling at once if it is helpful and appropriate in your situation. There are therapists who are specifically trained to help people with chronic illnesses. Individual counseling may focus on helping you cope with your diagnosis, the changes to your lifestyle or relationships, the losses you are facing as a result of your illness, or whatever else you choose to focus on.