February 6

Chronic Illness and Coping with Loneliness

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Coping with loneliness when you have a chronic illness isn’t just about getting over your feelings of isolation. 

It’s about acknowledging the impact that losing control over your body has had on your relationships. 

In other words, you’re not just trying to cope with being alone, because of your physical limits. 

You’re also mourning the loss of your old self. And you’re doing it alone for the most part, because it’s hard to find someone that can understand.

Here’s the thing: Loneliness kills. 

A study done on 3 million people found that loneliness can increase your mortality risk by up to 32%. 

And when it comes to chronic illness, it’s no easy ride either. It’s proven that chronic illness contributes to feelings of loneliness.

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And guess what? 

Loneliness suppresses your immune function and, as a result, increases your risk of developing health issues, such as a chronic illness. 

When you combine chronic illness and loneliness together, with no support, things can spiral out of control very quickly. 

After many years of dealing with various chronic illnesses, I have experienced my fair share of loneliness and isolation too. 

And to be frank with you – I’ve learnt that it’s hard to get rid of these feelings altogether. But that’s okay. 

Feeling lonely is a normal part of life. In fact, a 2010 study showed that 40 - 45% of all people around the world experience loneliness. 

What’s more important is understanding:

  1. Why you feel lonely; 

  2. How can you rationalise those feelings; and 

  3. What you can do to prevent or counteract it. 

Today, I feel so grateful for having a rich and fulfilled life. I have friends and family who support me. And I am able to channel my feelings of loneliness in a productive way. 

Here are my pillars to success that I hope you will be able to apply to your life too. 

Readjust Your Thinking

Often, what makes us struggle with loneliness is the fact that it just wallows in our minds. We don’t try to make sense of it by acknowledging what it is, and rationalising why it’s unnecessary. 

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5 steps to reframing your thoughts

Normalise loneliness

The irony about loneliness is that you’re not alone in feeling it. It’s actually pretty normal for everyone to feel lonely at some point. 

And it’s particularly normal for people with a chronic illness to feel lonely too. The fact that it’s hard to go out, have a social life, and be with others plays a huge role in this. 

So if you think about it – are you really alone if you’re not the only lonely person out there with a chronic illness? 

Identify your loneliness thoughts

Acknowledging that you feel lonely is step one. Now, it’s time to and understands your particular situation.

Each one of us has certain things that trigger our loneliness. It doesn’t just happen for any reason. The more you can understand what spurs your feelings of loneliness, the better your chances are of managing it. 

Try to ask yourself these questions and write down the answers: 

  • Is there a time of day where you feel more lonely? 
  • Are there certain places that make you feel more lonely? 
  • Do some people make you feel more lonely if you spend time together? 
  • How long have you been feeling lonely? 
  • When you feel this way, what do you do to try and make it go away? 
  • How does loneliness make you feel about yourself?

I would recommend writing these questions and answers down in a journal and documenting your responses over time. 

Rationalise these thoughts

By beginning to recognise what loneliness is for you, you can start to understand what it’s doing to your mind and body. And you can rationalise the thoughts you have around it. 

Now, it’s time to rationalise your answers from the questions above. This can be tricky, so take your time and really think it through. 

Here are some rationales I think you’ll find useful to get you going: 

  1. It’s normal to feel more lonely at night when you are in bed. This is a time where you clear your head and it’s easy for rumination to happen.
  2. Just because you spend time with others, it doesn’t mean you’re fulfilling your need to connect with people. You need more than just interaction to feel heard.
  3. There are many ways to fulfil your social needs without overdoing it. It is possible to conserve your energy and still develop connections with others. Your chronic illness does not have control over this. 

Practice positive self-talk

I’m not really one for holding hands and singing kumbaya around a campfire (and no judgement to anyone who is). 

When it comes to chronic illness, I’m a realist. So you can imagine how difficult it was to hear these three words on repeat every day. 

Just. Be. Positive.

Seriously? I’m frustrated as hell and I’m just trying to make it through the day. I don’t want to be positive because it’s not a solution. 

But over time I realised that this frustrating expression needs to be adapted to your life. Because actually achieving a positive mindset can help improve your confidence, reduce stress and improve your physical health. 

Yeah. Who knew? 

Here’s a positive twist on loneliness that definitely brings some good: 

Loneliness reminds you of the fact that you actually value human connection. You want to be part of a community. And that’s not worth giving up on! 

Block the negative people in your life

It’s not just about being around people – it’s about being around the right people. 

The people who bring you down, make you feel bad about yourself or make you feel like you’re not heard are not good influences to keep around. 

Try your best to distance yourself from your unhealthy relationships and spend more time with the people who bring meaning to your life. 

Help Others 

Funnily enough, one of the best ways to get over your own feelings of loneliness is by putting your time and attention into helping others. 

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This is one of the first things I ever did to overcome my loneliness. And it’s stuck with me since. 

I will never forget how miserable I felt 10 years’ ago. Not only did I have one of the most severe cases of CRPS doctors had ever seen. But I was entirely new to the concept of “chronic illness” and “chronic pain”. 

I was still a teenager then, and the most difficult things my peers were going through were breakups and exams. 

My biggest challenge, on the other hand, was that my doctors didn’t think I would ever walk again. 

At this point, all I could do was mourn the loss of my old life. 

And it wasn’t until I made friends with a woman who had Fibromyalgia, that I started to feel connected to another person again. And she made me read a book that changed my life. 

It’s called 29 Gifts, by Cami Walker. 

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but the premise is that the author, Cami, who has Multiple Sclerosis, learnt that only through giving, do you really allow positive change to happen in your life. 

“Healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, Cami, but through our interactions with other people. 
“By giving, you are focusing on what you have to offer others, inviting more abundance into your life. 
“Giving of any kind is taking a positive action that begins the process of change. It will shift your energy for life.”

Here’s how helping others, and giving back can help you through overcome loneliness: 

  • It helps you meet new people and become part of a new social group.
  • It allows you to reach a deeper sense of meaning and satisfaction in your life through the connections you make.
  • By helping those less fortunate, you automatically feel a deeper sense of gratitude for the life you have.
  • Any altruistic act will automatically make you feel better because it helps you view the world with a more positive perspective.
  • It’s likely to make you feel less alone, as you meet and unite with other beings who feel just as isolated as you do.  

Some ways that you can help others:

  • Volunteer where you can.

    Whether it's Animal rescues, orphanages, old age communities, or women’s shelters – it doesn’t matter. Give back where you can.

    I recommend that you choose a cause that you feel most drawn to at this time. It needs to be something that speaks to you on a deeper level.

    And make a point to schedule weekly visits, where you assist in whatever way is feasible. It doesn’t have to be money, your time is just as valued here. 
  • Participate in community events.

    This is something I see less of every year. But it’s an important way to help build connections with others in a productive way.

    Be it music, sport, art, cinema – it doesn’t matter. Try to involve yourself in any community events that you like. Even if it’s as small as sending out guest invitations for a fundraiser – you are still helping out. 
  • Lending a helping hand to someone with a chronic illness. 

    There are many people around the world who are struggling with their chronic illness right now. And you never know who will find comfort and relatability in the words of advice you have to share.

    Not only that, but it helps you feel a little less lonely when you’re surrounded by others who are experiencing similar issues to you. One chronic illness community that I highly recommend joining is PatientsLikeMe.

    And, as Ellen DeGenerous says, remember to be kind to one another. This can help out more than you may think. 

Nurture Existing Relationships

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Your friends and family who are making an effort to be there for you need to be acknowledged and celebrated. These are relationships worth strengthening. 

I know it feels hard to do this, but there are different ways to go about it. 

The most important thing is to fight the urge to isolate yourself when things get tough and reach out to the people that love you. 

This is something that took me a long time to get right. And even today, I still need to make an effort to open up to my loved ones.

After so many bad experiences when I was diagnosed, I shut myself down from the world because I couldn’t find anyone who could understand. 

But in time I learnt something quite valuable: 

The people who love you will make an effort to support you. You just need to communicate properly with them. 

Some tips on how to open up to your loved ones

  1. Be the first one to reach out.

    Your loved ones know that you need your space, and their lives have to carry on too. 

    So don’t wait for people to reach out to you. If there’s something you want to speak about. Or if you just need some affection, show them that you need the support. 

    It’s important to make sure you’re communicating what you need appropriately if you want to get the right support back. 
  1. Make small but regular connections with others every day.

    There’s no need to go for elaborate dinners, 2am dancing sprees or 20 events every weekend.Your friends and family will understand when you decline these invitations.

    What you need to do is reach out in smaller doses. Maybe it’s not lunch at a restaurant, but takeaways at home.

    Or maybe it’s a cup of tea in bed while you catch up.
    If socialising isn’t on the agenda, you can send a quick message.

    In the end, it’s about finding a balance that works for you. And making time for the people who deserve it. 

Keep Busy

I can’t stress this one enough – keep busy with stuff that gives you purpose. 

Purpose is what drives our desire to live. 

It helps us cope with tough situations because it gives us a reason to overcome them.  

Whatever you enjoy doing that is productive, invest your time into it. 

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And if you can’t do the things that you enjoyed doing before your diagnosis, then it’s time to be a bit more adventurous and try something new. (I would recommend this anyway.) 

Some of the best ways to keep busy

  1. Take up new hobbies.
    Whether you enjoy being creative, outdoors or in front of a screen. It doesn’t matter. Finding a skill that you can build on and improve is worth your time.
  2. Join the gym.
    This doesn’t have to be a monumental decision.  Just dedicating 20 minutes of your time still counts for something!
  3. Do some yoga.
    This is similar to joining the gym in that it is physical activity. But the mantra behind yoga differs quite a bit. The important thing is to find a way to move your body that you enjoy.
  4. Join a club or group.
    From book clubs to card game tournaments – there’s a club for everything. You just need to ask around a bit to find one. If there isn’t, then start your own!
  5. Entertain at home.
    Entertaining doesn’t have to be exhausting, especially when you have those closest to you come over. It’s about simple food, simple preparations, and a good time together.
  6. Learn to enjoy alone time.
    Last, but not least, it’s important to know how to keep busy when you are on your own. And the best place to start is by creating a list of activities that you can do by yourself and diving straight in. 

An important thing to remember when it comes to keeping busy is to anticipate the times that you are going to feel more lonely. 

We all have ‘trigger points’ for loneliness, and it’s a good idea to know yours. 

These are the times that you should aim to keep as busy as possible. Just try to organise yourself in advance, so that you know what to expect. 

Immerse Yourself Digitally 

Technology can distance us just as it can bring us closer together. This is especially true if you have a chronic illness. 

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Physical and psychological limits can make it difficult to interact with people face-to-face anymore. And online communication can actually help a lot here. 

Three main ways you can immerse yourself digitally

Play games

Online games have never been my passion, but I have seen just how much they can benefit others who suffer from chronic illnesses. And, who knows, maybe they’ll benefit me too, one day.

A great example here would be esports. Just because you may not be able to play actual sports anymore, doesn’t mean you can’t be involved in some way.

Esports makes it possible for you to partake in the competitive, action-packed games without being hit by any of the physical limits you experience in real life. 

Build a community on social media

All it takes is for you to create an account and start posting your thoughts. You would be surprised how many people are out there that are facing such similar problems to you.

Social media has been one of the most pleasant developments for the chronic illness community in the last few years.

This is something that I didn’t really have when I was diagnosed and would highly recommend to anyone who just needs to feel heard.

Besides the fact that connecting with people who are experiencing similar health issues to you is very unifying.

It’s also very therapeutic to give yourself a chance to unleash all your thoughts into your own small blog.

Eat Healthy

You are what you eat – oh, so true!

I don’t want to be a buzzkill here, but eating well makes a huge difference to your quality of life and your mental health. 

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Remember that a healthy body means a healthy mind too. And here’s why this is more than just conjecture: 

It’s shown that your happy hormone, serotonin, helps to regulate your mood, inhibit pain and even keep your sleep and appetite consistent. 95% of all your serotonin is produced in your gut. So what you feed it is super important. 

Another important thing to remember is that loneliness can actually contribute to systemic inflammation.  

This in itself can increase the risk of your current chronic illnesses worsening. And it can also increase the risk of more chronic health issues from developing. 

Coping with loneliness and healthy eating

  1. Eating ‘clean’ in a broad sense means cutting out processed foods and sugar. And it’s not enough to do it for one day. You need to give your body about 3 weeks to really see the benefits. 
  1. If you’re cutting out sugar (which I would highly recommend), understand that you are breaking an addiction. And that it will take about 21 days for the cravings and withdrawals to stop. 
  2. Isolate the foods that promote inflammation and see if it makes any difference when you cut them out. Two main food groups known to be inflammatory are dairy and certain grains.
  3. Keep all the anti-inflammatory foods that promote healthy gut to brain function. This mainly includes lots of green veggies, fatty fish, olive oil, berries, nuts and tomatoes.
  4. Prevent inflammation by feeding your gut lots of probiotics. One way to do this naturally is by eating fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, miso or kombucha.
  5. Be mindful of the fact that loneliness and eating go hand in hand. Research shows that loneliness can lead to binge eating. So if you see that you’re depending on food to cope with your loneliness, it definitely needs to be worked on. 

Get a Pet

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I realise this isn’t a simple solution, but it needs to be mentioned. Adopting a pet is a great way to fight loneliness.

When I got Ivy, my Yorkie, I thought that it would be a great way to keep me busy. I didn’t realise how much she would help me cope with my chronic illness and get over my loneliness. 

Pets have innocence and energy for life that’s contagious. And more than that, they make us feel understood without ever saying a word.

How pets* help you cope with chronic illness and loneliness

*This predominantly refers to cats, dogs and horses. 

  1. You get absolute, unconditional love. 

    No terms and conditions, no fine print. The amount of love and attention you get is incredible
  2. It gives you the opportunity to meet new people.

    Pets, especially dogs, want to be with you. And studies show that people who walk around with their dogs are far more likely to meet new people, engage in conversation and make more friends.
  3. It’s an altruistic act, which can be very fulfilling.

    Focusing your time, attention and care into someone that you love is extremely fulfilling. It gives you a deeper sense of purpose when you wake up every day and a reason to be.
  1. Pets help lower stress levels naturally.

    Pets are medical wonders that help you cope with stress. And they naturally lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels too. The better you feel, the easier it is to engage with others and build relationships.
  2. Dogs know how you feel.

    It’s proven that besides apes, dogs are the only animals to tell how a human is feeling by looking at their facial expressions. Amazing, right? So your pooch will know when you’re lonely and need some extra love. 

On the other hand, there are some things you need to think about before jumping into the decision and getting a pet. 

Pets are a lot of work, and they require regular care. You are responsible for another life, so it’s important you’re well enough to look after yourself before you get an animal. 

If you’re considering getting a pet, but you’re not sure whether it’s the right move, I recommend reading this article: How Pets Can Help Chronic Pain

Seek Professional Help

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Something that fascinates me about people, is that we’re often seen as ‘weak’ when we reach out for help. It’s information that’s used against us. 

Let’s get one thing straight: 

Working on your mental health is a strength and it takes courage. 

It shows that you want to lead your best life. That you are dedicated to improving yourself. And, that you know you deserve more of what life has to offer. 

I am the first to admit that I see a psychologist. I don’t go regularly anymore because some periods are more difficult than others. But over the last 10 years, it’s been something very important to me. 

Professional help is important if you want to cope with loneliness because it helps you feel connected to others and it helps you feel heard. 

When it comes to loneliness, you can use your sessions to effectively: 

  1. Make sense of the unusual obstacles I face, that the average person will never experience. (Or know how to talk about constructively.)
  2. Get a better idea of where my loneliness stems from at that moment. 
  1. Learn new ways to face my issues and work on the right coping skills.

Professional help doesn’t necessarily have to involve talking to a therapist or a counsellor. There are many ways to go about this that are less confrontational, if you prefer. 

Join an online support group

Once again, online platforms prove to help people with chronic illnesses quite a bit. 

The benefit of joining an online support group is that it’s more of a community effort. 

There is strength in numbers. And when you all unite for the same cause, it can be very motivating. 

It’s also less confrontational. So, if you struggle to talk about your loneliness face-to-face, this gives you a chance to just be present and listen. 

And one thing that I like the most is that these communities remind you just how many people there are that are going through something similar. 

Even if you’re all spread out around the world, it’s comforting to know someone else can truly empathise with you and make you feel heard. 

Take part in family or couples counselling

I recommend this because our family and our partners form the foundation of our support (or should, at least). 

And although they may have the best intentions when they try to help you. It’s likely that they’ve never been in a situation like this before and could use some guidance. 

Group therapy gives you the chance to work on your closest relationship and help you communicate with them in a more constructive way. 

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The most important thing to do is surround yourself with people who positively influence your life. And the people who love you enough to learn how this can be done. 

Chronic illness can feel like such a lonely journey, and in some ways it really is.

But here’s a parting thought for you: loneliness is temporary. It’s not something you will feel all the time. 

You have the power to make new bonds with people (or animals). But for this to happen, you need to take the first step and accept that your life will have to change in some ways first. 

If you have any interesting ways that you cope with loneliness that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it. Leave me a message below and I’ll try to give it a go. 

Marina

Marina Wildt is an experienced health and wellness writer, chronic illness warrior and founder of The Discerning You. In the last 12 years, she has gone from being paralysed in a wheelchair to living a full life alongside her conditions and now she wants to share all the practical advice that she has learnt with you.


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