Ever since I can remember, I have been chronically tired. Not just tired, but also experiencing troubling sleeping, muscle stiffness, widespread body pain, and brain fog. While this is something I have been experiencing for many years now, I recently went to a rheumatologist who officially diagnosed me with Fibromyalgia, which is defined as a long-lasting disorder that can cause pain and tenderness throughout the body, as well as fatigue. Chronic illnesses, like fibromyalgia, are basically any long-term condition (lasting more than a year), that may not have a complete cure, such as:
- Cystic fibrosis
- High blood pressure
- Parkinson’s disease
Unlike acute illnesses, such as the flu, chronic illnesses may never go away and be highly disruptive to your everyday life. Each can have disease-related symptoms, as well as general symptoms, such as pain/aches, fatigue, and increase risk in developing a mental health disorder, such as anxiety and/or depression. Now, this isn’t to say that everyone living with a chronic condition will develop a mental health disorder (and vice versa). However, it has been shown that those who suffer with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and more, also suffer with mental health disorders, such as depression.
If you are someone who lives with a chronic physical health condition, or even more than one, it can definitely take a toll on your emotional and mental well-being. The good news is that there are steps you can take to help manage your symptoms and take care of your mental health.
1. Focus on sleep. This was one of the first things that my rheumatologist told me and while I have found it to be the hardest to achieve, getting enough (and high quality) sleep is incredibly important. While this is a work in progress, I have found using a sleep mask, earplugs and white noise has helped block out any noise and light that could disturb sleep. To learn more about the importance of sleep and ways to improve it, check out one of MHA’s old blog posts here or register for an upcoming 3-part MHA Chats, where Dr. Brownlow will discuss the connection between sleep and mental health.
2. One step at a time. While this can appear to be impossible in the moment, especially as you look at your ever-growing to-do list, but focusing on one task at a time is actually more beneficial in the long run. It is also beneficial to break large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. For example, if you choose to go grocery shopping, meal prep, and clean your house all in one day. While seemingly productive, it can cause you to feel overwhelmed or overly exhausted to the point where you can’t get out of bed. Instead, distribute the tasks over days or if this isn’t possible, ask someone to help you and make sure to rest plenty in between.
3. Practice self-care. A lot of chronic conditions can cause physical symptoms, such as body aches/pain, fatigue, and decreased range of motion. Living with these physical symptoms can then often cause an increase in levels of stress, which is why it is important to implement self-care. This can look like taking a hot bath or shower, getting a massage, reading a good book, painting, or even just catching up on sleep. While exercise is good, it is also important to make sure you don’t over-do it, especially if your physical symptoms are acting up. This is why a leisurely walk or even swimming is great for those with chronic aches and pains.
4. Maintain a good support network. Speaking from personal experience, it is easy to self-isolate when you’re feeling particularly exhausted and in pain. While you should always listen to your body, it is also important to pay attention to how self-isolating may impact your emotional and mental well-being. So, if you find yourself up to it, try and make plans with friends/family (even for an hour), or if you can’t, talk to a friend over the phone or join a virtual support group.
5. Give yourself grace. As many of us may realize, it is easier to give grace and practice compassion to others, but not so much when it comes to ourselves. If we do practice self-care, such as taking a bath or reading a book, we may sit there and get distracted by everything else we should be doing instead. If this happens to you, try incorporating more mindfulness and positive thinking activities into your routine. This can look like meditation or gratitude journaling, which is said to help “cultivate a more optimistic outlook and help quiet our inner critics.”
Chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, and endometriosis, can cause not only physical symptoms, but can have an impact on our emotional and mental well-being. While they can be disruptive, there are ways to help manage them, such as focusing on plenty of (restful) sleep, maintaining a good support network, and practicing self-care techniques. You can also look online for a support group, as well as look to individual counseling, as they can help with creating more strategies to meet your specific needs. Ultimately, remember to practice self-compassion and self-advocacy – no one knows what you’re experiencing better than yourself!
Staff Member: Mollie Clupper
Mollie Clupper works for MHA as a Communications and Support Specialist. Using her own experiences, she wants to help bring awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, drinking coffee, and spending time with loved ones.