Easy Ways to Relax When Chronic Health Issues Are Making You Anxious
If you’re living with a chronic condition, worsening illness, or degenerative disease, you’ve probably experienced some related anxious feelings and thoughts—whether about your current condition or about what the future may hold. And you’re not alone, either.
“Anxiety and worry are so common for people with chronic illness because you are really experiencing ongoing and repeated medical trauma,” says Kelsey Bates, a licensed mental health counselor in Arlington, Virginia, who specializes in mental health concerns related to complex chronic health issues. “Years of repeated medical exams, invasive surgeries, countless treatments, and dismissive doctors can all contribute to the activation of anxiety,” she says.
Fear of the disease itself as well as fear around it recurring or worsening can also be major drivers of anxious thoughts and feelings, according to a study in PLoS One.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to lighten the load a little. Here’s what the experts have to say.
1. First, Give Yourself Some Grace
It’s important not to resist what you’re feeling, says Michelle Feng, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Executive Mental Health in Los Angeles, who specializes in helping people cope with acute and chronic medical problems. Instead, give yourself some grace as you cope.
“Allow yourself permission to experience all the feelings that can come with managing a chronic condition. Feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and self-doubt are normal, as you are navigating difficult terrain,” Feng says.
Don’t feel compelled to push it down and keep it all in. “Oftentimes, the pressure we put on ourselves to ‘get over it’ does just the opposite; it keeps us stuck in the feeling by adding shame on top,” Feng adds.
To practice giving yourself some grace, try this: The next time you start to feel worry or fear, sit with that feeling and honor it, knowing that it’s valid. Next, find a way to relax, such as through progressive muscle relaxation. “Notice how your body is feeling and where you are most tense,” Feng says. “Take five deep breaths and focus on relaxing those muscles each time you breathe out.”
2. Try Cognitive Reframing
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that can help you notice patterns in how your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors affect one another. One of the concepts sometimes taught in CBT is called cognitive reframing, which involves viewing your problems through a different lens.
The idea is that by challenging and reframing the context of your thoughts, you may be able to conceptualize a problem in a different, more positive way—which may help decrease feelings of worry or anxiety.
“Try to acknowledge your emotions and your ability to tolerate both physical and emotional pain at the same time,” Bates suggests, offering an example: “If you have the thought, ‘I can't stand not knowing when the next flare will be,’ a reframe may sound like, ‘I have anxiety not knowing what today or tomorrow will look like, AND I have evidence that I can manage flares well—when a flare comes, I can get through it.’”
3. Adopt a Mantra
Another helpful tip? If you’re in the middle of a bad flare that’s really getting you down, repeating a mantra like “This is temporary” or “I can get through this” can help remind you that flare-ups have come and gone before, Bates says.
4. Ask Whether the Anxious Thoughts Are Helpful
Anxiousness, on its own, is not necessarily a good or bad thing. Some anxious feelings can help keep us safe from immediate danger. But other feelings of anxiousness, especially if they’re chronic, may get in the way of our lives.
Feng suggests getting curious about these anxious thoughts and feelings. “Ask yourself whether the type of anxiety you are feeling in the moment is serving you. Is it moving you to act in a helpful way? Or is it keeping you from experiencing what you want?”
Then, thank your anxious thought or feeling, Feng says. If the anxiety is helping you in any way (in the form of self-protection or a strong instinct, for example), thank it for that. However, if you notice your anxious thoughts or feelings aren’t that helpful, take a slightly different approach. “Thank your brain for trying to protect you, and refocus on what you want,” Feng says.
When you’re worrying excessively, it may also be helpful to ask yourself this question: “If I took the energy I was spending worrying and directed it toward something else, what would I be doing instead?” This mental exercise can help distance you from the emotion and remind you of what’s important, Feng says.
5. Distract Yourself
If you’re having a particularly tough day, Bates suggests digging through your distress tolerance toolkit. Distress tolerance is a measure of how willing and capable a person is of enduring unpleasant or challenging emotions to achieve their goals. Your “toolkit” is made up of those skills that can increase your tolerance. “These look like healthy distractions or escapes, like reading a good book or watching a comedy,” Bates explains.
Then, when your worries feel more tolerable, you can try again to use other helpful skills like reframing, Bates says.
6. Turn to Community Support
Research suggests that peer support for people living with chronic illness can offer a sense of connection and encourage self-care. Consider joining an online or in-person support group. Whether that group is dedicated to managing your anxious feelings or geared toward connecting with others who have your chronic health issues, sharing your worries and fears with others may be a great way to blow off some steam and connect with others who understand you.
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