By Rachelle Friedman, LMSW, Infinite Healing and Wellness, EMDR Therapist
When you or a loved one is diagnosed with a chronic illness, you must take a step back and redefine your life. This can mean many things, but regardless of the implications, this evaluation of your life is not something that people anticipate. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event. You might wonder why I put the definition of trauma in this first paragraph, but many times, the diagnosis of chronic illness and learning to live within your new constraints is traumatic.
As a therapist, my job is to help people move through trauma and learn about their grief. We need to be able to cry, to get angry, and when we come to acceptance, we want to stay. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works with chronic illness. Psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1969), defined the cycle of grief in her book, On Death and Dying. Grief consists of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When people go through grief, the stages, with the exception of acceptance, are painful, and we do what we can to stay out of pain.
Acceptance is much harder with a condition where there is not likely an end. When you are living with chronic illness, there is always going to be the next flare, the next migraine, the next time you vomit, the next time you must cancel on somebody, the next time you feel too sick to go to work, etc. Often, it doesn’t take too long to learn this. That can be traumatic.
Once we learn that we cannot rely on our bodies to support us, or function in the way that we want it to, we become upset. According to NAMI (the National Institute of Mental Health), people who live with a chronic illness are at an increased risk for depression and anxiety.
This makes sense when one considers that one has to restructure his or her entire life around a disease that they never asked for or wanted. This powerlessness is agonizing and is hard for the brain to tolerate and process. Even when people are mindful and acknowledge their grief, they will still fear their body and their illness. It can create a chronic state of fear.
This is where things get tricky. As a therapist and somebody that lives with chronic illness, I personally understand firsthand this phenomena of powerlessness, which can take over and render me choiceless. However, that is also one of the things that makes me incredibly strong and resilient. That last part is something that my clients don’t often see until they are a few months into treatment. Part of processing the trauma of living with a chronic illness is working with the piece of your mind that is always trying to anticipate the next flare. To do this, I go back in the person’s history and help to process the anger, fear, guilt, and sadness that have been felt.
Throughout this process, I teach about grief. For people living with chronic illness, grief is an interesting merry-go-round of emotion. What is necessary is the acknowledgement and acceptance of the stage of grief that is being experienced. Denial is also common and part of the process. It is hard to surrender to the reality of a chronic health condition. Usually when the body prevents the person from doing something they once could do, they are no longer in denial and that can be painful. This is part of the process for most and it’s important to forgive yourself for this; we have all been there.
Living with chronic illness and living within the cycle of grief is not comfortable. It takes time to get adjusted. What many people do not recognize before starting therapy is that they spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid grief and trauma. Once they take time to process the trauma and notice the grief, they have more energy and the time that they spend in acceptance increases. This is when more happiness returns as well.
People living with chronic illness tell me that they see themselves as broken. The amazing thing about watching someone change their thought process is that I have the privilege of seeing them transcend their pain and learn that they are warriors. They have overcome fear, pain, and have learned to thrive and adapt in spite of their illness. They are no longer avoidant of their emotions and find the courage to lean into their emotions so that they can heal. We can’t heal what we can’t feel, and that is where freedom lies. By allowing themselves to experience their emotional life, they learn that they can get through it! That last part is how they can get up the next morning and work their jobs, go to their doctor’s appointments, and take their kids to school; that is strength.
The clinicians at Infinite Healing and Wellness are ready to assist.
Infinite Healing and Wellness LLC, in Gilbert at 2563 S. Val Vista Drive #108, Gilbert, is a collaborative counseling practice designed to serve children, families, teens, adults, couples, first responders and military veterans. For more information, call 480-448-1076 or email
email@example.com. Check out our website, Infinitehw.com to learn about our incredible team, upcoming groups, and follow our positive and encouraging Instagram and Facebook pages.
Back to Top