Accepting Chronic Illness: How to Find Hope and Joy in the Everyday
Some people who are living with a chronic illness often scan the news hoping to learn that scientists have finally discovered a cure for what ails them. It can be hard for them to let go of the idea that a miracle is just on the horizon.
This is how Ashley M. Ratcliff, 37, of Long Beach, California, felt at the start of her MS journey. “When I was first diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, in 2018, I held on to a hope that a cure would be found,” Ashley says.
That’s a completely understandable instinct, says Katie Willard Virant, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in St. Louis who treats patients with chronic illness. “I think everybody starts with that hope, whether it's conscious or unconscious,” she says.
But the definition of chronic illness is that it’s not going away anytime soon, if ever. “The narrative in Western medicine is that when you’re sick, you go to a doctor, you get a pill, and you're better,” Virant says. “So, it's very difficult to wrap your mind around the idea that this narrative you grew up with is not going to be your story.”
Although Ashley says she still prays every day for the scientists researching MS and holds out some hope that a cure will be found in her lifetime, she’s more realistic about her expectations. “I’m not just sitting around waiting for that to happen,” she says.
Her perspective has changed over time—and that has been helpful in unexpected ways. “It took me a few months to really accept my diagnosis instead of fighting it. But when I did, it was easier to exist because I was able to have a routine and control my stress, which can trigger flare-ups,” she says. “I have a much more positive outlook on life now.”
6 Paths to Acceptance of Your Chronic Illness
As Ashley found, hope is important, but acceptance is also a key step toward living well with your disease. For those who may feel stuck while waiting for a cure, here are some ways to move forward.
1. Give Grief a Time Limit
When you’re first diagnosed with a chronic illness, it’s important to take the time to mourn your losses, Virant says. But eventually, accepting that you may be dealing with this illness for the rest of your life is crucial for both your health and your state of mind. Research suggests that patients who accept their chronic illness have an increased sense of well‑being.
“When you don’t accept the reality of your illness, it can also affect your treatment,” Virant says. People who are in a state of denial may not pay close enough attention to their symptoms, get the rest they need, or follow their treatment regimen, she explains.
2. Let the Scientists Do Their Thing While You Do Yours
There are medical breakthroughs happening all the time—but focusing all your energy thinking about them can be stressful and won’t move the needle. “If a miracle cure comes about, that’s great, but it's not something the average person has any control or influence over,” says Elana Miller, M.D., a Los Angeles integrative psychologist who is also a cancer survivor.
To feel more involved, you can donate money to a research fund, participate in a charity event, or sign up for clinical trials if you’re eligible. But turn your main focus toward finding joy in your day-to-day life.
3. Enjoy Everyday Moments
Once you stop focusing on a vague future when there may be a cure, you can stay more present in the here and now, Miller says. She suggests planning for one moment of joy each day.
“You may not be able to go on big adventures that you post on Instagram, but every morning you can wake up and think, ‘Can I go for a walk? Can I call a friend? Can I watch a TV show that I love?’” Miller says. Once you’ve made your plan, stick with it.
4. Take Pride in Your Achievements, Big and Small
Don’t give up on hope altogether; simply hope for things you can reasonably achieve, suggests Virant. “If I watched the Olympics and then woke up every day and said I was going to compete in the next Games, I would be really unhappy because that's never going to happen!” she says. “But I could say, ‘That really inspired me to become more active. Maybe I'll take a walk around the block, and then I'll build on that.’”
Even small achievements can result in a sense of accomplishment and purpose. You can also hope for illness-specific goals, like having more energy tomorrow, or learning about a new medication that improves your symptoms.
5. Discard What’s Bringing You Down
Chronic illness can give you a chance to define and refine what your values are, Virant says. “Since your energy may be limited, you have to make choices—and it can be a great opportunity to really clean house and say, ‘These are the things that are important to me, and these are the things that aren't, and I'm going to let those go.’”
Give yourself permission to say no to things, to not take on more than you can handle, and to do what’s best for you.
6. Talk to a Therapist or Counselor
Discussing your emotional journey with a mental health professional who is familiar with chronic illness can help you put things in perspective, Virant says.
“The idea of disappointment and hope runs through all of our lives, and it’s possible that other issues regarding hope and disappointment are intertwined with your feelings about your illness,” she says. “A good therapist can help you untangle that and work through it.”
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