After sixteen years of chronic illness and even after writing a book titled How to Be Sick, I still can feel sick of being sick. (When I use the word “sick,” I’m including chronic pain.) If you’re as intimately familiar as I am with sick of being sick, you know it how unpleasant it feels.
Here are ten strategies to help you through this difficult emotional time.
1. Start by acknowledging how you feel. You can’t force that sick of being sick feeling to go away by denying that it’s present. In fact, denial may only intensify the feeling. It’s normal to feel this way. Being chronically ill is hard, and so start by acknowledging that it’s not easy and that it’s not surprising that sometimes you’re just plain sick of being sick.
2. Cultivate self-compassion for your illness and for that sick of being sick feeling. Self-compassion is crucial because it keeps self-blame from sneaking in. Adding blame into the mix only makes you feel worse. You’re chronically ill, and that’s a fact of your life right now. It’s not your fault, unless you want to call being born your fault! Everyone lives in a body that’s susceptible to illness and injury. No blame allowed — either for being sick or for being sick of being sick. It’s natural to get fed-up at times with ongoing pain and illness.
3. If it’s helpful, have a good cry. Crying can be cleansing. It’s a challenge to cope with this unexpected turn your life has taken. (In my latest book, I call it “a life upside down.”) It makes me cry sometimes. If crying helps, cry. Just don’t allow that cry to become a breeding ground for unhelpful thoughts, such as “Why me?” Think of a good cry as cleansing, like a cleansing bath.
4. Assess your behavior. If you’re like me, you can feel sick of being sick even though you’re taking good care of yourself. At other times, however, that unpleasant feeling can be traced to a lack of good care on your part. This happens to me. I’ll start fighting my chronic illness by pushing my energy envelop in every way: doing too much for too long a time; not getting adequate rest or sleep, etc. So, when this sick of being sick feeling arises, stop and assess whether you’re contributing to it by not taking good proper of yourself. If that’s the case, resolve to change course immediately.
5. Contact someone in your life who won’t try to talk you out of how you feel. When you’re sick of being sick, if you’re like me, you don’t need a pep talk. You just need someone to say, “I’m sorry things are so hard right now,” or “It’s perfectly understandable that you’re feeling this way,” or a similar comment showing that this person truly “gets” how you feel.
What should you do if you don’t have such a person in your life? Then you be that person. Why? Because you certainly “get” how you feel! I’m serious. Be a compassionate witness to that sad and painful feeling by saying to yourself in a gentle voice, “I know it’s hard, and I’m so sorry that you’re sick of being sick right now.”
6. Take refuge in the universal law of impermanence. Nothing stays the same for long, including your moods and your physical symptoms. Remind yourself that even if you get worse before you get better, your symptoms will improve a bit at some point. It’s part of the ups and downs of chronic illness.
Moods change too, meaning that, even if you feel just as sick tomorrow, your mood may have changed such that you’re able to be more accepting of your illness and not have that sick of being sick feeling. So, be patient and wait for things to change—both physically and emotionally.
7. Challenge yourself to find something pleasant going on around you. This can take you out of exclusively focusing on this difficult emotional state. I’m fortunate to have several windows in my bedroom that give me a view of my backyard. I can almost always find something pleasant going on there, whether it’s a visiting bird or the wind through the trees. If my dog, Scout, is on the bed, I cuddle her. That’s always enjoyable.
If you can’t find something pleasant going on around you, create it. Put on a funny movie. Listen to some music. I’ve started doing jigsaw puzzles. Doing something pleasant for yourself can ease your emotional suffering until that sick of being sick feeling passes.
8. Move your body to another place. I live in a relatively small house. I could almost call it a cottage. (Sometimes I marvel at how my husband and I raised two teenagers here without always being in each other’s way.) Because I’m mostly housebound, when I move to another place, it’s only a few steps away. And yet, it can make a big difference. Simply moving from the bedroom to the living room gives me another view of the world and another place to sit or lie down. If you’re able, try going outside. Sometimes my husband takes me for a drive. It gets my mind out of thinking about being sick.
9. Make a list of everything that’s better about your life because you’re sick. Initially, you may not be able to come up with anything, but keep at it. See if you can list at least five things, no matter how trivial. If you’re mostly housebound, it could be that you don’t have to put up with getting stuck in traffic. It could be a new appreciation for quiet or solitude. It could even be that you have a legitimate excuse to get out of doing things you don’t want to do. Let it be a selfish list! No one need see it but you. I guarantee it will ease the pain of feeling sick of being sick.
And finally …
10. Remind yourself that it’s just a day in the life. Some days, it feels like nothing is going your way. When this happens, particularly when your sick of being sick, remembering (as the Beatles did in song) that it’s just one day in your life and that tomorrow will be a new day.
Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard. This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.
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