How to Keep Your Head on Straight When You're a Woman Who’s Living With Chronic Illness

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Harper Collins

How can mental strength help us survive and thrive with chronic illness? I had this question while reading a new book, 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do, by licensed clinical social worker, therapist, and bestselling author Amy Morin. While the book focuses on mentally strong women in general, it became clear that mental strength belongs in every empowered patient’s toolkit. Here, she explains by email how to apply her “13 things” to life with and after illness.


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Drop the comparisons

Do you ever tell yourself – or even hear from others – comments like: "Cathy’s doing chemo, and she’s still going to work.” Or “Ellen is hypothyroid and she’s a size 4.” According to Morin: “Don’t compare the way you feel or how much progress you’re making with anyone else. Even if someone else has the same illness, your body and your journey are going to be different. Look at other people as opinion holders — they may have information and tips that can help you. But they aren’t better than you.”


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Forget perfection

Many women with chronic illness still insist on looking and being the perfect parent, partner, employee, and/or homemaker. Morin recommends that you identify the tradeoffs – what are you giving up to be a perfectionist? She also suggests you write yourself a kind and supportive letter. “Consider the type of letter you’d write to a friend who is dealing with a chronic illness,” Morin says. “It would likely be filled with compassion and encouragement. Write that letter to yourself and when you’re having a bad day, read it.”


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Vulnerability does not equal weakness

Asking for help can be hard, or feel like a weakness. “It takes strength to ask for help and to admit you can’t do everything,” Morin says. “Allowing someone to help you can take a burden off you. But it can also be helpful to your friend or family member. Often, they want to do something but struggle to know what to do. Allowing someone to drive you to an appointment, clean your house, or drop off a meal could be just as helpful to them as it is for you.”


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Stop self-doubting

Self-doubt can become a self-fulfilling cycle: By preventing you from believing in yourself or your ability to get better, you may actually halt progress. “Keep in mind that there’s a major mind/body connection. If your brain is convinced your body can’t heal, your body might listen,” says Morin. When you feel self-doubt, create a more balanced outlook by “arguing the opposite and thinking about the best-case scenario,” says Morin.


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Don't overthink everything

"What if I had the biopsy earlier?" "What if my doctor tested my thyroid before the miscarriage?” You’ve got to stop playing the what-if game. “Rehashing past choices isn’t helpful or productive. Practice accepting your current situation,” explains Morin. “You don’t have to like it or resign yourself to staying the same. Acceptance can simply mean acknowledging what you are dealing with right now. Then, you’re free to devote your time and energy to productive action, rather than wishing things were different.”


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Act brave — fake it 'til you make it

Sometimes, every day with a chronic illness feels like a tough challenge. New treatments or major lifestyle changes can be even tougher. Morin recommends trying to reframe and rename challenges as “opportunities” — not obstacles. It’s a bit of a “fake it till you make it” mentality, actually: “It’s common to think that you need more courage before you can move forward. But the best way to feel brave is to act brave,” say Morin. “Don’t confuse a lack of confidence for a gut instinct. It’s normal to feel afraid.”


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Go ahead, break the rules

Some doctors are offended by patients who do their own research, ask questions, or want a second opinion. Getting the best care sometimes means that you don’t follow the unwritten rules. “Remember that you’re in control; you know your body best,” says Morin.


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Squash the negativity

Some women with chronic illness spend a lot of time complaining about incompetent or useless health care providers or drug companies. We’re all human, and venting offers temporary stress relief. But negativity creates worse health outcomes for you in the long run. “Resist the urge to constantly blow off steam,” says Morin. “Instead, put your energy into lifting other people up by sharing kind words and compassion.”


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Block out unwanted advice

I hear it all the time: “You should do THIS or THAT for your thyroid and/or diabetes!” “It’s frustrating to hear unwanted advice—especially from someone who doesn’t really understand what you’re going through,” says Morin. “If someone is lecturing or criticizing you, or wasting your time with unhelpful advice, set boundaries. You might say, ‘I’ll check with my treatment team about that.’ Or, if the person is persistent: ‘It’s not helpful to me right now to hear those things.’”


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Don't play the self-blame game

It’s easy to blame ourselves when things go wrong health wise. Sometimes, even our doctors blame us when treatments don’t work. Morin recommends you create a helpful mantra like, ‘I’m doing the best I can with what I have,’ to remind yourself that mistakes are part of the process. “Do you blame yourself for your illness? You couldn’t know then what you know now,” she says. “Toxic blame does more harm than good. Take responsibility for your actions but refuse to take on any extra burdens—you have enough to deal with already.”


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Speak up

Your doctor can’t help you if he or she doesn’t know your specific concerns. This means that sharing information with your health care providers is crucial. Morin recommends that you bring a concise agenda to your appointment, saying, ‘I have a list of concerns I want addressed,” “Stick to the facts about what the symptoms or problems you’re facing and ask questions that help you get the information you need,” says Morin “If you get interrupted, point it out, saying ‘I wasn’t done asking my question yet.’”


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Welcome a new you

While life is different with chronic illness, that doesn’t have to be a negative. “Many people find meaning in their lives by reinventing themselves,” says Morin. “Ask yourself, ‘If I woke up tomorrow and a miracle happened and I felt happier, what would I notice first?’ You need to be realistic — you can’t go back in time or it may be impossible to undo some effects of your illness. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to live a happy, rewarding life.”


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It's okay to have a win

Sometimes we don’t feel we deserve our success, and experience what’s known as ”thrivers’ guilt.” According to Morin: “It’s okay to acknowledge that some success in life is up to chance — or a higher power. But it’s equally important to recognize the hard work you put into becoming your best. If you spent years battling an illness, acknowledge the time you spent driving to appointments, the research you conducted, and the sacrifices you made to get healthy, to remind yourself that you are strong, capable, and competent.”


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Going forward

Morin’s book is filled with tips, advice, practices, and exercises that can help you put her principles into action in your own life. Whether it’s Morin’s recommendation that you limit your social media to avoid comparing yourself to others, or making an effort to compliment and encourage people in your daily life, you’ll find her advice helpful in building your own mental strength.