How to Cope When You Feel Overwhelmed By Your Chronic Illness

If you feel overwhelmed by your chronic illness – it’s natural. Your whole life changes so suddenly. But coping with overwhelm isn’t just about accepting the condition itself. It’s about learning to adapt to a new way of living.

Coping with a chronic illness means relinquishing control of your old life. It’s about taking the time to learn about yourself, re-evaluate your goals and learning to be a little more forgiving about your life expectations.

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So, if you feel like you: 

  1. Are always worrying about your physical health.
  2. Can’t sleep at night because your worries replay in your mind.
  3. Struggle to talk to people about what you’re going through. 
  4. Prefer to stay away from social situations.
  5. Become pretty irritable when the topic of physical health comes up. 

Then you’re going through a period where life is too overwhelming and it’s time to get things under control again.

This isn’t a process that needs to be rushed. It needs to be done thoroughly and calmly. After all, how do you eat an elephant?

One. Bite. At. A. Time. 

Here’s what I have to share with you about my journey with chronic illness and how I’ve learnt to cope with extreme feelings of overwhelm throughout the last 12 years.

Make a List

When you feel overwhelmed and there’s nothing that seems to help you calm down – putting pen to paper does wonders.

writing-check-list-to-cope-with-feeling-overwhlemed

This may seem like a trivial thing to do, but writing your thoughts down when you have a busy mind is known to have therapeutic benefits.

This is because it gives your racing mind a chance to unload its thoughts in a more structured manner. And it lets you express your emotions in a safe space.

1. Keep a journal 

A great way to help you cope when you feel overwhelmed is by making a list of all the things that are concerning you at this moment.

If you have a health journal already - perfect! Otherwise, I would recommend getting one for this activity. Writing stuff on a random piece of paper doesn’t help you consolidate your thoughts properly over time.

Here are some things I have felt overwhelmed with in the past, just to give you a few examples: 

  • I am struggling to keep up with work deadlines and I feel like I am going to lose my job.
  • I’m in a wheelchair now and I feel helpless around the house.
  • I can’t explain my pain to my family and no one understands me. 

And remember, there’s also no right or wrong points here. Even the smaller things in life can cause some anxiety. For example: 

  • Summer is coming and I don’t want people to see all my scars at the beach. 
  • I have a dinner date and I don’t want him to ask me why I’m such a fussy eater. 
  • I hate using my walking stick because I get interrogated by the public. 

Once you’ve written everything down, take a breather. Then approach your issues with a clearer mindset because you can tackle each issue individually.

The best way to do this is by keeping as informed as possible. If you’re worried about your job, you can: 

  1. Chat to your doctor about your energy and pain levels. 

  2. Do some research into state disability benefits. 

  3. See if there are less stressful jobs you could apply for at this stage.

Be patient and try to tackle one (max. two) points at a time. Once they’re resolved, you can move onto the next one. I like to give myself 1 long term and 1 short term issue to resolve at a time just so it feels like I am making more progress day-by-day.

2. Keep a diary and a schedule 

Unfortunately, chronic illness can really affect your short-term memory. Trust me – I know. And this caused severe anxiety for myself and left me overwhelmed all the time. 

Often, I just can’t remember what responsibilities I have and when. And when things are always springing up on you it becomes too much to handle. 

Whether it’s on your phone, laptop or old-school diary – I really recommend making your calendar your best friend. When you schedule an event – it always makes it feel a lot more real. 

One thing I particularly like about online calendars is that you can invite other people to see your notice as well. 

So whenever I book any appointments, I jot it down and invite my partner to it too. That way it reflects in both our diaries and we can keep on top of all commitments – work and social. 

Make Peace with Imperfection

“Until you make peace with who you are, you will never be content with what you have.” ~ Doris Mortman 

These are some wise words I’ve lived by. Even if they weren’t intended for people with chronic illnesses in specific, the concept still applies perfectly.

learning-to-self-love-to-cope-with-feeling-overwhelmed-by-your-chronic-illness

No, your life probably isn’t what you imagined it would be.
No, you may not have achieved the goals you originally set out to.

And although it feels like your life has ended entirely. It hasn’t.

Your old life may be fading, but a whole new one is being cultivated from your experiences. Who would have thought you could develop such resilience and strength so quickly?

Your body has miraculously dealt with so much, and it deserves respect. YOU deserve respect.

Here’s what you need to do to start this journey of finding peace with your imperfections:

1. Say goodbye to the “idealised self”

In life, we can’t have full control over each personal goal we want to achieve. Things happen in our environment that we have to adapt to. And this is what you should prize yourself as – before anything else.

You are a warrior who copes with the changes in life.

And you make do with what you are giving. 

You will go far because you’ve learnt to harness the turbulence in life to benefit you instead of simply being thrashed to the floor.

2. Change overwhelm-inducing thoughts

Don’t get me wrong, I roll my eyes (internally) at all the people that say “Just keep positive” too. It can be infuriating – no?

Life is hard and you need to talk about what you’re going through. Thinking about daisies and sunshine isn’t on your list of priorities.

What I’ve taken away from all these frustrating life mottos, is that they need to be adapted to suit you.

For me, positivity wasn’t being excessively happy. It was just in changing the words I used when I spoke and thought about my health. When you feel overwhelmed by your chronic illness – I highly recommend it.

So next time that judgemental voice in your head says: “Seriously? How are you tired again.” Or “What? You can’t even hold down this job you idiot.” It’s time to tell them to shut the hell up. 

These are all the anxiety-driven, negative thoughts that can make you so overwhelmed. 

Learn to speak to that voice like you would speak to a friend in need. When you’re tired, acknowledge that your body deserves the rest. If you can’t work any longer, feel comfort in knowing you did your best.

Everything you from here is to help you walk away from stress and accept your anxiety you know you have.

3. Try not to compare yourself with others

One way to build overwhelming pressure is continuously comparing yourself with others.

No matter who it is – even if they have the same chronic illness as you. Your lives are not the same. Your obstacles are not the same. And the lessons you need to learn are not the same. 

Don’t let someone else’s success demotivate you or pressurise you. As long as you keep moving forward to the best of your ability, nothing else should matter.

Take Time to Breathe

We live in a world where everything is fast-paced. Any deadline you have is basically due a day before it’s even issued you to you.

Instant gratification is becoming a big part of our personalities and it needs to stop. 

coping-with-feeling-overwhelmed-by-chronic illness

Our bodies are not machines. We cannot configure ourselves to show results within a specific time by a specific date. A large part of feeling overwhelmed by your chronic illness is because of this. 

No matter how advanced the world’s productivity gets – we need to remind ourselves that we’re still human and need to respect our bodies’ limits.

1. Look after your soul

Your soul needs to be nurtured every day. You’re not just a body that needs to be fed, bathed and rested. You’re a whole human being that needs to grow and feel fulfilled emotionally too.

It’s time to forgive yourself for all the unnecessary pressure you’ve put yourself under. To acknowledge the strength you already have and the remarkable milestones you’ve already reached.

In your health journal, stick photos of any progress you make and take note of it. Even if all you do is learn to wiggle your pinky toe again – you need to respect how hard it was to get that right. 

In moments when you feel down or behind, that’s when you can whip out your journal and page through every single little success you’ve already had. Fuel your spirit with the motivation to move forward and forget about the rest.

Another great thing to do is take some of the focus from yourself and give it to someone else. 

Whenever I’m feeling down, I like to see how I can help someone else at that moment. I may not always have the best day, but it feels 100 times better if I know I made it better for someone else.

2. Meditate

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Relax.

When was the last time you could do this properly?

Sometimes I find having a chronic illness to be such a blessing because it’s given me more time to learn about who I am and how I relate to the world around me.

I often do this through some guided meditation as it makes you appreciate what is happening in that very moment in your life. And it stops you from worrying about things in the future that you have little control over.

Meditation shows you that you cannot run away from yourself. Only learn and grow. 

Ask For Help When You Feel Overwhelmed By Your Chronic Illness

Much like writing down a list, reaching out for help is another great way to vent your feelings and clear your mind. 

feel-overwhelmed-by-your-chronic-illness

If you feel like you have someone trustworthy around you – speak to them. Ideally, you want someone who will be there to listen to you and not give you unsolicited advice.

You need to feel safe and calm with anyone you choose to convey your deepest insecurities and concerns with.

Otherwise, it could also be a good idea to speak to a psychologist at this time. I would advise finding someone who specialises in helping people with chronic illnesses as they have some coping tools of their own that you could try out.

In the end, it can’t hurt anybody just to try and see if it works for you. Especially in moments where panic overrides any other emotion and you are struggling to get through the day.

The other way that I would recommend enlisting help is with day-to-day life management. For example, cleaning the house, running errands, doing the shopping or even looking after kids.

This is definitely a luxury, but if it’s within your budget – do it. It’s okay not to do everything by yourself. Sometimes sharing the load can help you keep much stronger and more present every day. 

Take Action

One of the best ways to settle down when you feel overwhelmed by your chronic illness is to just get up and do something.

It doesn’t really matter what, it just needs to be something that you enjoy and that makes you feel productive.

table-filled-with-tasks-to-cope-with-feeling-overwhelmed-by-your-chronic-illness
Did you know that anxiety is becoming a normal condition to develop if you have a chronic illness? Some studies show that people with chronic pain in specific are three times more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety.

And I undoubtedly believe this because it happened to me too. Crippling pain and exhaustion can leave you unable to get much done. The less you do, the more anxiety you develop about everything that you should be doing.

If you have an exam. It’s not just the anxiety of writing it. It’s the anxiety of knowing your body isn’t reliable enough to depend on when you need to study or even write the paper itself.

I can’t say you can entirely avoid these experiences – but you can definitely learn from them and set better boundaries for yourself.

1. Have a project that gives you purpose 

Whether you dedicate your time to a part-time job, home business, non-profit organisation or even studies – it needs to be something that makes you feel productive.

2. Keep active and move around 

Spending too much time alone with your thoughts can make you feel very lonely and isolated. So even if you’re just moving around your house – it can give you a fresh perspective on whatever you’re ruminating about.

Talking to a friend, going for a walk or even just moving from your bedroom to the lounge can be refreshing.

3. Focus on your strengths 

When your health isn’t, it’s hard to acknowledge any good things that are happening in your life right now. But if you want to build your resilience, you’re going to have to acknowledge the weaknesses in your life and put them aside to focus on the strengths in your life.

If you’re incredible at cooking, but struggle to chop up veggies anymore. Get someone to help you cut them up – or buy them precut! Don’t let yourself focus on the painful process of chopping vegetables when you could be focusing on an amazing meal you’re preparing – it’s not worth it!

Prioritise Self-care

Self-care isn’t just about running yourself a nice bath every now and then. It’s about learning to associate rest with pleasure and not with punishment.

woman-sleeping-peacefully

Looking after yourself is necessary if you want to cope with the anxieties of life and help others along the way too.

Resting is necessary, it’s medicine for your mind and your body. And it’s never something that you should feel guilty or ashamed for doing.

Remember that:  

  1. There’s no one that can tackle life if they’re not well equipped for it.
  2. We’re all susceptible to injury and pain, so we should be more compassionate of others. 
  3. If we don’t look after ourselves – how can we look after others? 

Here are some of my favourite self-care rituals that can help you too:

  1. Take a day (or two) to reset. Don’t work, avoid social gatherings and just take time to rest.
  2. Opt-out of some activities. This will exercise your power to say no, but trust me, it’s worth it when you need a break!
  3. Treat yourself to a massage. I try and do this as regularly as I can. And I warrant the cost by looking at how much happier, more energised and productive I am afterwards.
  4. Sleep – like a lot. This does wonders for your mood and motivation. 
  5. Eat well. I know this isn’t always fun, but it’s such an important aspect to self-care and respect for your body. You can’t expect it to work properly without the right fuel.
  6. Going to the gym or doing yoga. Nothing like some exercise to ease my fibro pain, alleviate anxiety and get some blood back to my brain.
  7. Start a group activity.

    In my case, I’ve started an art group where my friends and I meet once a month to paint ceramics. It’s super therapeutic, creative and easy to do (you don’t need to be an artist). And the best part about it is that you always create something beautiful and useful in the end that you can keep or gift.
  8. Go for a walk. It doesn’t matter where – just move and get fresh air.
  9. Read a book or watch a movie – or both! I love story-telling so anything with a good plot line can keep me engaged and relaxed for a while. 
  10. Call or spend time with a friend – because spending time with the people you love and trust should feel relaxing and re-energising.

Let me know if you found my techniques to be useful or if you have any other suggestions you think I should know about. I'd really like to hear from you!

About the Author

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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