It goes without saying that chronic physical illness can be disabling to one’s everyday life. What is not discussed widely, however, is how psychologically impactful it is, too. When it’s a woman managing chronic illness, the effects multiply. The toll being exacted might be related to the illness itself. For example, certain medications needed for chronic illness can alter one’s mood and mental state.
Less obvious though, is the emotional drain involved. Women are most often the caretakers of the home and family. They live under certain societal expectations. As a result, something like cardiovascular disease or cancer impacts them in many invisible ways.
What is a Chronic Illness?
If a condition lasts at least a year, requiring steady medical care, it is deemed chronic. Common characteristics include:
- Limited daily function
- Sleep disturbances
- Reduced social life
- The need for medication
By the Numbers
- More than 1 million Americans are living with multiple sclerosis.
- Arthritis: 24 million
- Cancer: 14.5 million
- Diabetes: 29.1 million
- Cardiovascular disease/Stroke aftereffects: 85.6 million
What Many Women Feel
Anyone with a chronic illness may struggle with depression and fear death. Women in particular, might feel guilt and shame. They cannot always do what is expected of them, which can be culturally difficult to accept. A study done in England found that at least 30 percent of those with a chronic illness were diagnosed with coexisting mental health disorders.
It’s not fair — not even close — but women are caregivers. An inability to fulfill this role is correlated to an increased risk of anxiety and depression. They may push themselves to do more than they should because they believe they simply do not have time to be sick. All of this adds up to potentially worsen the chronic illness. A cycle is created that can guarantee that the illness sticks around longer while guilt increases. It’s an emotional roller coaster.
How Can Women Cope?
While it’s tempting to downplay the illness and keep pushing, this is counterproductive. Studies find that women with a chronic illness who seek social support and develop coping skills are more mentally healthy than those who do not. Here are a few suggestions for moving in that direction:
- Identify What is Within Your Control: Time and energy are at a premium. Thus, you’ll want to aim your efforts at what you can control. You can practice self-care, avoid negative people, and do lots of self-education.
- Keep a Journal: Monitor your symptoms and your triggers. This type of journal will come in handy when seeing your physician and/or your therapist.
- Get Yourself a Health Advocate: Things are improving, but we still have a long way to go until women get the same level of health care as men. Recruit a strong ally.
- Lighten Your Load: Let go of anything that is not urgent. Scratch it off your to-do list, and don’t hesitate to ask others for help. Communicate clearly to your loved ones what you need and how they can support you.
- Communicate With Your Family: Your illness affects them, too. Encourage everyone to be open about what they’re feeling. When you work as a loving unit, you reduce resentment, guilt, and misunderstandings.
- Find a Support Group: It could be in-person, online, or a little of both. Connecting with people who “get it” is a game-changer. You’ll learn countless tips and also have the experience of being able to help others.
In a more abstract vein, remain diligent not to let the illness alter your self-image for the worse. It does not define you or change your identity. Therapy is an ideal setting for keeping things in proper perspective … make an appointment with Arie Roth, LGPC now as she is passionate about working with women who are struggling with chronic pain and illnesses. You can do so here or reach out to us on our contact form now. We’ve got you!