Living with a chronic physical health condition can be like sitting in the passenger’s seat enduring the journey while the health condition takes control of the driver’s seat dictating every move and turn. The questions is, is it possible for a person to manage a chronic disease, be back in the driver’s seat and take more control over their health? Before answering this question, let’s define chronic illness.
A chronic illness or disease is a long term condition with ongoing effects according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. One way of understanding the word “chronic” is by looking at time rather than the intensity of symptoms. From the U.S. National Centre for Health and Statistics it is defined by the illness lasting more than three months. Generally, most chronic conditions cannot be prevented by vaccines or cured through medical treatment. Common persistent illnesses include: arthritis, asthma, cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease (i.e. heart, stroke and vascular), diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (i.e. lung and breathing conditions).
Here’s another car analogy; if your car is not running smoothly and there are warning lights showing on the dashboard, then you would probably see your trusted mechanic at some time. He/she will sum up all the warning signs or symptoms, provide a diagnosis and then proceed to fix the issue with a physical approach (i.e., remove the flux compacitor). Traditionally, your health professionals such as your GP and referred specialist are much like your mechanic in which they come from a biological/physical model to approach health issues.
Like your mechanic assessing the car, your medical team are assessing you and are trying to make sense of the physical symptoms, diagnose and recommend treatments to fix the illness. You may feel like you’re been treated like a car as you’re poked, probed and lifted onto hoists. Once again, much like your mechanic, your health team action ways to resolve health issues. This is done usually with a combination of physical/biological methods (i.e., remove something via surgery, prescribe medicines, and other treatments).
In the case of chronic diseases a cure or fix is unlikely. Much of the treatments that are provided in healthcare are to reduce symptoms and effects. Thus, treatment led by your physician/doctor is targeted at managing the effects rather than fixing the illness. The good news is that medical scientists are working overtime to constantly develop advances in medicine. So it’s possible that an illness that can be under control but not cured today may be wiped out in the future. For example, a cure for Hepatitis C has been recently available to the public since August 2018.
Living with a chronic health condition can be hard not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well. It is common for individuals and families to experience emotional and psychological effects associated with the illness such as depression and anxiety. Unlike a car, machine or the most sophisticated robot on earth, you do have thoughts, emotions and self-guided behaviour. As such, it is normal to feel sad about your body and illness, be worried about the future implications, stressed about health management, trying to come to terms with mortality and constantly seeking alternative solutions.
Living with a long term condition can be life changing. It is common for people to make adjustments to lifestyle, lifelong ambitions and employment. With the adaptation, a sense of loss, feeling stuck and a change in identity may occur. Sometimes with time, you may feel more confident about adjusting to a long lasting condition as you develop a new pattern of living. You may even start to find aspects of your life go on with its usual way as it did prior to the diagnosis. Emotional and psychological responses are variable between people and are largely dependent on the person’s age, personality, life experience and ongoing disease type.
Where to from here and how does an individual start the journey of taking back control? People have found the following actions useful as a starting point in managing and coping with a chronic illness:
Having a health professional such as a psychologist can help with dealing with the psychological impact and start your journey of managing the illness by putting it in the passenger’s seat and yourself in the driver’s seat. The idea is to be open and allow the health condition to come for the ride since we cannot get rid of it. You call the shots as you drive towards a full and meaningful life. This is done by focussing on quality of life. The distress should ease over time, but may increase and you may feel a loss of control with managing the condition. If you don’t feel yourself at that point, it might be a good time to ask for some help.
If you are struggling to adjust or cope with a chronic illness, please speak to your GP about seeing a psychologist to assist. At CBT Professionals we have a number of psychologists experienced in supporting individuals to adjust and manage their chronic illness the best they can. To help facilitate a referral to our service, please download our Referral Fact Sheet and take it to your extended consultation with your GP.