This article was created in collaboration with WellSeek.
A few weeks ago, I polled my Instagram followers to ask, “What’s the hardest part about living with a chronic illness?”
Social gatherings, exhaustion, how it affects my marriage.
Always being tired and needing a nap in the afternoon.
Being fine one day and terrible another day, often with no explanation.
When people can’t see you are having a hard time.
Not being able to do the things I used to do.
Whether it’s an autoimmune disease like Crohn’s and Hashimoto’s, or mood disorders like depression or anxiety, living with a chronic illness has physical, mental and emotional difficulties that impact everyday life.
For myself, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s eight years ago, and ever since, I’ve been chasing down getting well enough to feel “normal.”
In reality, my disease has forced me to reexamine my lifestyle, and even temper certain aspirations and ambitions so that I don’t compromise my physical or mental health.
If you have Hashimoto’s, the physical challenges can steal your energy and joy, leaving you feeling isolated, frustrated or depressed. Research shows that people living with Hashimoto’s have a vulnerability to psychiatric issues, like anxiety and depression. We don’t know exactly why this happens since symptoms of mood disorders tend to overlap with those of Hashimoto’s.
Is it a mood disorder caused by the autoimmune dysfunction itself, the mental weight of living with a chronic illness, or both?
Regardless of the cause-effect relationship, it’s only when we address the physical and mental aspects of the disease that people can truly improve their well-being.
And when it comes to managing an autoimmune disease, we tend to focus on the physical aspect of the illness (weight, energy, physical appearance), looking to the latest diet or exercise routine as a solution.
Certainly, nutrition and exercise can support but they primarily address the physical component, and may not fully address the emotional or mental aspect of Hashimoto’s. Let’s dig in.
First, let’s talk about the physical challenges of Hashimoto’s.
Common physical symptoms are:
Brain fog which makes it difficult to retrieve the right words in conversation and can make speech sluggish
Fatigue and exhaustion that doesn’t improve with rest or sleep
Struggle to do “normal” things like cleaning or even getting out of bed
Cold hands and feet
Hair loss or thinning of the outer eyebrows
Physical challenges have impacted every area of my life from sleep to socializing, to exercise and work.
What about the emotional and mental difficulties that someone might experience?
Feelings of isolation/loneliness
Anxiety or depression
Frustration because you feel like no one understands
Shame for not being able to do “what everyone else can”
The emotional and social challenges of living with a chronic illness are often overlooked, yet they are such an important dimension of our well-being. When our mental health suffers, so do our relationships, friendships, and work performance.
Autoimmune diseases can cause your mental state to go up and down, leaving you feeling stuck as if you are living on the sidelines.
Over the last few years as I’ve become more open about my own mental health challenges through my work, I’ve explored tools beyond nutrition and exercise to care for my own physical and mental health. These have helped me to create my own new “normal”, and to be someone who has a bit more happiness, calm, and energy in my life.
Although there are difficult days, I feel like I can live again. Here's what's in my coping toolbox.
1. I live in line with my intuition.
In simplest terms, intuition is defined as the ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning. It is your inner guide.
By using my intuition to manage the emotional, mental and physical aspects of my chronic illness, I began to listen to what my body needs. It helps me drown out the noise of what others can do, and I feel empowered to make decisions that are best for me.
The reality is no one else can know what it’s like to live in your body with your illness, especially those that have never experienced it.
Intuition has allowed me to:
Set boundaries on making plans/commitments
Treat myself with kindness rather than criticism
Helps determine when to say “yes” and “no”
If you are wondering how to use your intuition, consider asking yourself these questions, and answer them based on how your body feels, not what you think you “should” do.
How does my body feel today? Do I need extra rest, or do I have more energy? How do I want to spend this energy?
2. I sought out therapy
Therapy can help us shift our thinking from “There is no point in taking care of myself, because it won’t make a difference” to “There are things within my control that I can do to take care of myself.”
Through behavior change, therapy helps patients develop self-care skills and learn how to accept difficult thoughts and feelings, rather than trying to change or avoid them. I’m now more aware and committed to what I need to do to take care of myself.
Mindfulness and self-compassion help guide me, and I have an easier time accepting — rather than avoiding — unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
3. I established a self-care routine
Self-care looks different for everyone so establishing your own “non-negotiables” is a good place to start.
My non-negotiables are getting sufficient sleep every night, engaging in physical movement, and eating nourishing foods. It can help to think about this in terms of how you want to feel, and then what you can put in place that will support it.
For example, in order to complete my responsibilities at work, I need to concentrate and focus throughout the day. I know how awful I can feel when I don’t get enough sleep so I go to bed at a consistent time every night. These days I rarely deviate.
While chronic illness can bring a lot of uncertainty, small changes can make space for healing to happen, Mentally or Physically.
What are your tools for coping with a chronic illness? Share below so we can keep the conversation going!