More people than ever are living with chronic illness, for a variety of reasons. More of us are living to advanced ages, and we all tend to accumulate health problems as we get older. Medical care has improved, which means that more people survive serious accidents or bouts of disease, and find themselves living with a chronic condition afterwards, and medication is better, which means that many conditions, such as HIV/AIDS, which used to be a death sentence, can now be managed with medication, and become chronic, rather than fatal, health issues. At the same time, our modern lifestyle seems to predispose many of us to a range of autoimmune disorders and/or conditions that relate to being sedentary or obese. Research suggests that the fact that modern people rarely encounter hazards such as intestinal parasites and live in increasingly sterile conditions means that their immune systems are not challenged, and can react by turning on the body itself.
None of that is any comfort to those who live with chronic illness. It’s one thing getting a nasty cold or flu—it’s no fun, but at least we know that we’ll start feeling better after a few days—and quite another having to manage a condition that might never get better at all. Understandably, many people with chronic health conditions also suffer from issues such as depression and lowered self-esteem as a result not only of their symptoms but of the stress of knowing that they may never get better.
One of the problems associated with chronic ill-health is the fact that, often, the person affected looks just fine. Conditions such as interstitial cystitis can cause pain as severe as end-stage kidney failure, while the individual concerned looks perfectly healthy. Illnesses such as ME or fibromyalgia can compromise quality of life seriously while leaving no physical markers of the condition. Sometimes friends and relatives simply don’t understand how debilitating the disease is, or even think that the person is exaggerating or making it all up. They might not make the necessary allowances or they might fail to empathise when the person involved is having a bad day. They may be criticised when they use a disabled parking bay, because they do not look obviously disabled.
While both women and men can suffer from chronic illness, chronic illnesses are much more common in women. The reasons why are not entirely clear, although the fact that women in the developed world live, on average, longer than men is obviously one element. Another factor is high levels of misdiagnosis in women, leading to health problems being left untreated, or being treated inappropriately, and becoming chronic. Some of the factors associated with chronic disease, such as having a sedentary job or low income, also disproportionately affect women. Research also suggests that women presenting in hospital or medical clinics with conditions such as pain are often dismissed as not being seriously ill, or are initially diagnosed as having a psychiatric or stress disorder, while pain symptoms in men are often taken much more seriously from the moment of presentation; this can delay diagnosis.
Although chronic illness is often incurable, there are still many things sufferers can do to improve their quality of life. They can start by developing realistic expectations about what they can do. If they simply don’t have the energy to socialise during the week after a busy day at work, for example, they can be upfront about this when friends issue invitations: “Because of my condition I need to rest in the evenings or I won’t be able to get up in the morning, but I’d love to meet up on Sunday instead.” They can learn how to use techniques such as mindfulness meditation to reduce and manage symptoms. Many sufferers of chronic conditions find it useful to engage with a support group, or with group therapy. Above all, it’s OK to admit that sometimes it’s all very hard, and it’s good to reach out for help. With the right support, many people with chronic illness can continue to enjoy rich, fulfilling lives and do not have to let their condition get in their way of happiness.
WHO CAN I SPEAK TO FURTHER ABOUT THE ISSUES IN THIS ARTICLE?
For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.
Keywords: Chronic illness; mindfulness medication; support and help.