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8 Tips for Navigating Difficult Times That I’ve Learned from Living With a Chronic Illness

Real Talk

June 26, 2020

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by Lauren Selfridge, LMFT


Medically Reviewed by:

Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., MSN


by Lauren Selfridge, LMFT


Medically Reviewed by:

Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., MSN


Navigating a health condition is one of the biggest challenges many of us can face. Yet there’s tremendous wisdom to be gained from these experiences.

If you’ve ever spent time with folks living with chronic illness, you may have noticed that we have certain superpowers — like navigating the unpredictability of life with a sense of humor, processing big feelings, and staying connected with our communities during even the hardest times.

I know this firsthand because of my own journey living with multiple sclerosis (MS) for the past 5 years.

Navigating a health condition is one of the biggest challenges many of us can face. Yet there’s tremendous wisdom to be gained from these experiences — wisdom that comes in handy during other challenging life situations, too.

Whether you live with a health condition, you’re navigating a pandemic, you’ve lost your job or relationship, or you’re going through any other challenge in life, I’ve gathered some “sick gal” wisdom, principles, and best practices that may help you think about or interact with these obstacles in a new way.

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Ask for help

Living with a chronic, incurable condition has required that I reach out to the people in my life for support.

At first, I was convinced that my requests for extra help — asking friends to attend medical appointments with me or pick up groceries during my flare-ups — would be viewed as a burden to them. Instead, I found that my friends appreciated the opportunity to show their care in a concrete way.

Having them around made my life much sweeter, and I realize that there are some ways my illness actually helped bring us closer together.

You may be skilled at managing life on your own, but you don’t have to figure everything out solo.

You may find that as you allow loved ones to show up and support you during a difficult time, life is actually better when they’re near.

Having a buddy sit in the waiting room at medical appointments with you, exchanging silly texts, or having late-night brainstorm sessions together means more joy, empathy, tenderness, and companionship in your life.

If you open yourself to connecting with the people who care about you, this life challenge may bring even more love into your world than before.

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Become friendly with uncertainty

Sometimes life doesn’t go the way you planned. Being diagnosed with a chronic illness is a crash course in that truth.

When I was diagnosed with MS, I was afraid it meant my life wouldn’t be as joyful, stable, or fulfilling as I’d always imagined.

My condition is a potentially progressive illness that might impact my mobility, vision, and many other physical abilities. I truly don’t know what the future holds for me.

After a few years spent living with MS, I’ve been able to make a significant shift in how I sit with that uncertainty. I learned that having the illusion of a “certain future” taken away means getting a chance to shift from circumstance-dependent joy to unconditional joy.

That’s some next-level living, if you ask me.

One of the promises I made to myself early on in my health journey was that whatever happens, I’m in charge of how I respond to it, and I’d like to take a positive approach as much as I can.

I also committed to not​ giving up on joy.

If you’re navigating fears about an uncertain future, I invite you to play a creative brainstorm game to help reorganize your thoughts. I call it the “Best Worst Case Scenario” game. Here’s how to play:

  1. Acknowledge a fear that’s playing out in your mind. “I’ll develop mobility impairments that keep me from being able to go hiking with my friends.”
  2. Imagine one or more helpful ways you could respond to that fearful situation. These are your “best-case” responses. “I’ll find or establish an accessible outdoor group or club.” “I’ll be a kind and supportive friend to myself through all the feelings that may come up.”
  3. Imagine some positive outcomes to the responses in step 2. “I’ll meet new friends who can relate to living with mobility challenges.” “I’ll be able to feel even more powerful than before because one of my fears came true and I discovered I was actually OK.”

This exercise can move you from feeling stuck or powerless in rumination about the obstacle itself, and instead focus your attention on your response to it. Within your response lies your power.

Manage your resources

Having less physical energy due to my symptoms meant that during symptom flares I no longer had time to put my energy toward what wasn’t meaningful to me.

For better or worse, this led me to take stock of what was truly important to me — and committing to doing more of it.

This perspective shift also allowed me to cut back on the less fulfilling things that used to crowd my life.

You may find that your own challenging circumstances give you a perspective shift when it comes to living a fulfilling life.

Give yourself time and space to journal, meditate, or talk to a trusted person about what you’re learning.

There’s important information that can be revealed to us in times of pain. You can put these learnings to good use by infusing your life with more of what you truly value.

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Feel your feelings

At first, I had a hard time letting the truth of my new MS diagnosis into my heart. I was afraid that if I did, I’d feel so angry, sad, and helpless that I’d be overwhelmed or swept away by my emotions.

Bit by bit, I’ve learned that it’s OK to feel deeply when I am ready, and that the feelings eventually subside.

I create space to experience my emotions through talking honestly with the people I love, journaling, processing in therapy, listening to songs that evoke deep feelings, and connecting with other people in the chronic illness community who understand the unique challenges of living with a health condition.

Each time I let those feelings move through me, I wind up feeling refreshed and more authentically myself. Now, I like to think of crying as “a spa treatment for the soul.”

You may be afraid that letting yourself feel challenging emotions during an already difficult time means you’ll never come out of that deep pain, sadness, or fear.

Just remember that no feeling lasts forever.

In fact, allowing these emotions to touch you deeply may be transformative.

By bringing your loving awareness to the feelings that arise and letting them be what they are without trying to change them, you are changed for the better.​ You may become more resilient, and more authentically you​.

There’s something powerful about letting yourself be impacted by the highs and lows of life. It’s part of what makes you human.

And as you process these tough emotions, something new will likely emerge. You may feel even stronger and more resilient than before.

Take a break from all that feeling

As much as I love feeling my feelings, I’ve also realized that part of what helps me feel OK with “going deep” is that I always have the option to step away.

Rarely will I spend a full day crying, raging, or expressing fear (though that would be OK, too). Instead, I may set aside an hour or even just a few minutes to feel… and then shift to a lighter activity to help balance out all the intensity.

For me, this looks like watching funny shows, going for a walk, cooking, painting, playing a game, or chatting with a friend about something completely unrelated to my MS.

Processing big feelings and big challenges takes time. I believe it may take a whole lifetime to process what it’s like to live in a body that has multiple sclerosis, an uncertain future, and a series of symptoms that may arise and fall away at any moment. I’m in no rush.

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Create meaning in the challenges

I’ve decided to choose my own meaningful story about the role I want multiple sclerosis to play in my life. MS is an invitation to deepening my relationship with myself.

I have accepted that invitation, and as a result, my life has become richer and more meaningful than ever before.

I often give MS the credit, but I’m really the one that’s done this transformative work.

As you learn to make sense of your own challenges, you may discover the power of your own meaning-making skills. Maybe you’ll view this as an opportunity to recognize that there’s still love in even the hardest moments.

You could find that this challenge is here to show you how resilient and powerful you truly are, or to soften your heart to the beauty of the world.

The idea is to experiment and adopt whatever soothes or encourages you right now.

Laugh your way through the hard stuff

There are some moments when the gravity of my illness really hits me, like when I need to take a break from a social event so I can nap indefinitely in another room, when I’m faced with choosing between the terrible side effects of one medication over another, or when I’m sitting with anxiety just before a scary medical procedure.

I often find that I just have to laugh at how treacherous, inconvenient, or mind-blowingly humbling these moments can feel.

The laughter loosens my own resistance to the moment and allows me to connect with myself and the people around me in a creative way.

Whether it’s giggling at the absurdity of the moment or cracking a joke to lighten my mood, I’ve found laughter to be the most loving way to let myself relinquish my personal plan and show up for what’s happening in this moment.

Tapping into your humor means connecting with one of your creative superpowers at a time when you may be feeling powerless. And in moving through these ridiculously difficult experiences with a sense of humor in your back pocket, you may find an even deeper power than the type you feel when everything goes according to plan.

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Be your own best friend

No matter how many caring friends and family members have joined me for my journey with MS, I’m the only one who lives in my body, thinks my thoughts, and feels my emotions. My awareness of this fact has felt scary and lonely at times.

I’ve also discovered that I feel much less lonely when I imagine I’m always accompanied by what I call my “wise self.” This is the part of me that can see the whole situation as it is — including witnessing my emotions and my daily activities — from a place of unconditional love.

I’ve made sense of my relationship with myself by calling it a “best friendship.” This perspective has helped me out of feeling alone in my hardest moments.

During hard times, my inner wise self reminds me that I’m not in it alone, that she’s here for me and loves me, and that she’s rooting for me.

Here’s an exercise for connecting with your own wise self:

  1. Fold a sheet of paper in half vertically.
  2. Use your non-dominant hand to write down some of your fears on that corresponding side of the paper.
  3. Use your dominant hand to write loving responses to those fears.
  4. Continue back and forth as though these two parts of you are having a conversation.

This exercise helps create an inner alliance between two distinct aspects of your multifaceted self, and helps you receive the benefits of your most loving qualities.

May you find a deeper connection with yourself

If you’re reading this because you’re going through a hard time right now, please know that I’m rooting for you. I see your superpowers.

No one can give you a timeline or tell you exactly how you must live through this part of your life, but I trust that you will come to find a deeper connection with yourself in the process.

Article originally appeared on June 26, 2020 on Bezzy’s sister site, Healthline. Last medically reviewed on June 26, 2020.

Medically reviewed on June 26, 2020

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About the author

Lauren Selfridge, LMFT

Lauren Selfridge is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, working online with couples and people living with chronic illness. She hosts the interview podcast, “This Is Not What I Ordered,” focused on full-hearted living with chronic illness and health challenges. Lauren has lived with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis for over 5 years and has experienced her share of joyful and challenging moments along the way. You can learn more about Lauren’s work on her website or follow her and her podcast on Instagram.

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