Stress isn’t good for any body. “It can contribute to a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, headaches and fatigue,” says Debra Borys, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles. But when you have a chronic condition, stress can be especially harmful. “It can increase things such as cortisol and inflammation, which can in turn exacerbate an illness,” Borys explains.
That’s the physiological reason why it’s important to manage stress when you have a chronic disease. There’s also the psychological basis: the illness itself is a stressor, which means that people with a chronic illness typically already live with heightened levels of stress. “It’s stressful not knowing when you might have another episode, or if you’re going to get better or worse or a lot worse,” says Marion Frank, a psychologist in private practice and president of Professional Psychology Services in Philadelphia. “The lack of control and fear of losing independence can be debilitating,” she adds.
On the flip side, reducing stress can give you back some control and help improve your condition. Here, five ways to rein in stress so you can live more freely and fully.
1. Find a doctor who’s the right fit for you.
Your doctor should make you feel better. But even the best physicians in their field can have personalities or communication styles that simply don’t mesh with yours; as a result, you can feel that he or she doesn’t listen or understand you, adding to your stress level. “Your doctor plays a key role in helping you manage your chronic condition, so it’s vital that you can work well together,” Frank explains. “If you don’t feel respected and heard, you need to find a doctor who is responsive to your needs and provides answers to your questions in a satisfying way.”
2. Make work-life balance a priority.
Reading, spending time with family and friends, and doing other enjoyable activities always seem to fall to the bottom of our to-do lists. But when you have a chronic illness, you need to move them to the top. Not only will spending more time doing pleasurable things relieve stress, but it will also recharge you. “It’s counterintuitive, but relaxing and having fun can make you more productive,” Borys adds.
3. Lean on your social support system.
From the moment we’re born, being held is physiologically calming to our bodies. As adults, feeling close and receiving unconditional support and empathy provides another dimension of serenity. “We’re wired to be social; we aren’t meant to be islands,” Borys says. “That’s why venting is helpful. Sharing your feelings and worries with a friend who is a good listener—and might even have advice or offer new insights can feel like such a relief.”
4. Keep a solid routine.
Keeping irregular hours and eating at different times is hard on the body. Just think of how tired you feel from jet lag or even just from moving the clock forward one hour for Daylight Saving Time. When you’re overtaxed, you have little reserve left to handle stress, which is why the smallest setbacks can seem like major roadblocks. “Routine sleep, diet and exercise make for a healthier lifestyle for everyone,” Frank says, “but when you have a chronic illness, they can also decrease the likelihood of a flare-up.”
5. Let go where you can.
Cutting out what makes you feel pressured may seem obvious, but a lot of people don’t think to do it or that they can. Of course, big changes like switching to a less grueling career or moving to shorten a commute require time and planning. But small changes can make a big difference too, says Borys. “Even just waking up 15 or 20 minutes earlier so you’re not rushing around all morning can put you in a state of mind that will brighten the rest of your day,” she says.
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