How to cope with chronic illness: 'Your disease does not define you'

Getting diagnosed with a chronic illness can be devastating. 

It can also be scary to realize that you’re dealing with a health issue that may never go away.

The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics defines chronic disease as lasting three months or more and a condition that typically can’t be prevented by a vaccine or cured by medication. Chronic illness is a leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., responsible for seven out of 10 deaths annually.

Some of the most common chronic diseases include heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, ALS, and Alzheimer’s.

Trying to prevent a chronic disease can be difficult, because in some cases experts aren’t sure what causes them. Some risk factors, such as diet and exercise, can be controlled. Others, like heredity, are predetermined. What we do know is that people 65 and older are prime candidates for developing a chronic disease. 

Beyond the physical setbacks, those living with a chronic disease may also struggle with their mental health, specifically depression, and studies have shown that the mood disorder can negatively affect physical health.

That because when we have a thought, the brain sends out neurotransmitters, aka chemical messengers that control our body’s functions, from movement to digestion. Some people with chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis experience more or worse symptoms when they’re stressed.

So what can you do?

Though chronic illness can’t be cured, there are tools available that can help you strengthen your psychological resilience. Sarah Johnson, a licensed social worker, often treats patients with chronic illnesses. She says the first step after being diagnosed with a chronic illness is to let yourself feel your feelings.

“I always suggest to give yourself a minute to soak in how that’s going to make you feel,” Johnson tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “To be overwhelmed if you have to be overwhelmed, or angry or sad — there are a lot of feelings that people experience when they first get a diagnosis.”

Next, find some activities that help you feel positive. Hang out with friends and family, write in a journal, or attempt a new workout regimen. You can even try some exercises to increase your zen.

“I always recommend mindfulness practices, so things like meditation and breathing exercises can help to manage the thoughts that you have,” Johnson says.

Living with a chronic disease can be a winding road filled with obstacles and setbacks. Still, it’s important not to let a diagnosis or negative thoughts define who you are. There are a lot of things you can’t control, but the key is to focus on the things you can.

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