8 Ways to Cope With Anxiety and Chronic Illness

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

Many people who suffer from a chronic illness may also experience great stress and anxiety. Sometimes the anxiety issues came well before the diagnosis of a chronic medical condition and sometimes they come after. Regardless of when the anxiety began, it can be very difficult to deal with in combination with another illness.

During my lifetime I have coped with having phobias, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety. I can tell you that I have never been fond of seeing doctors or of going to hospitals. So when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the autumn of 2007, my anxiety levels shot through the roof. For someone who is afraid of enclosed spaces, I had to undergo many MRI's where they stick you in a tube and you have to remain still for up to an hour or more. I hate needles, but that is also a part of the process of getting an MRI (to be hooked up to an IV). I have also always been terrified of physical illness so many of my fears were being invoked at once.

A person who suffers from anxiety quite often feels like they have no control and that bad things can happen at any moment. So when you hear that diagnosis for the first time, that you have an incurable chronic disease or illness, you freak out a little bit. Okay a lot

Here are some ways that I have coped with my anxiety that I hope can benefit others who are in a similar situation.

1. Research your illness or disease. HealthCentral can help with this research process in providing you with information and resources about your condition. Anxiety grows when we let our imaginations run wild with what we don't know. Knowing more about the facts of your illness makes you a more empowered patient in making decisions and choices about your treatment.

2. Try not to seek out the most dismal and extreme stories on the internet concerning your illness. For any diagnosis there are the horror stories and some people love to tell them. But quite often these extreme cases are not the norm. It does no good to frighten yourself to death over these extreme cases. Nobody has a crystal ball. Just because you hear about one bad story doesn't mean it will happen to you.

3. Be selective about who you choose as your doctor. You want a doctor who you trust and can easily communicate with. If you feel uneasy with your doctor or feel that you are not heard by him or her, then it is time to search again. If you have a lifelong illness, you will spend lots of time at the doctor's office. You need someone who has a good bedside manner and who can put you at ease.

4. Find support for your condition. You don't need to do this alone. There are tons of other people who share your same diagnosis. Many of these fellow patients are right here on HealthCentral. I can tell you from my experience that having people to talk to, who have gone through the same procedures and treatments, can be emotional lifesavers. I have learned how to cope and survive by seeing others do it and hearing their stories.

5. Take a vacation from your illness. Okay so you really can't just ditch your illness but you can take a break from worrying and fussing about it. You don't need to research or talk about your condition 24 hours a day. It is good to talk and think about other things. Allow yourself to get distracted by hobbies or finding out who is the latest to get booted off "Dancing with the Stars." It is okay and healthy to think about other things.

6. Remember that you don't have a crystal ball. Nobody does. There is not one person on the planet who can accurately predict what is going to happen next. If you spend all your time worrying about the future and what may happen, you will miss out on right now. The big life lesson I have learned from getting MS is that we are all on a timeline here. Life is not unlimited. So I might as well enjoy the time I do have here.

7. Write about it. I have often been relieved by stress and anxiety by writing about my experience. The great thing about a site like Health Central is that it is open 24 hours a day for you to express your thoughts. If you are crying into your rocky road ice cream at one in the morning, you can write about those feelings and share them. And chances are, someone is going to be out there will relate.

8. The Serenity Prayer. The Serenity Prayer is about acceptance. It is a guide which tells us that we cannot control everything in our lives. We need to develop that wisdom to know which things we have to let go of and which things we can control. Maybe we can't cure our disease. But we can learn to live a healthy lifestyle to minimize pain, discomfort, and exacerbation of our illness. We can always learn to accept and adapt to what is.

I am sure I could keep going with this list. There are so many things I have learned in these couple of years that I would not have otherwise without acquiring my diagnosis of MS. In a way, I have come to deal with my anxiety so much more because I have been thrown into the fire so to speak. I am forced to come face to face with my fears because anxiety will only make my condition worse. I have had to learn to treat myself well. And I hope that you can too.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."