What Now? Navigating the New Territory of Day-to-Day Life after Sustaining a Chronic Condition
By Anne-Marie Sylvester, Registered Clinical Counsellor & Psychotherapist
As a person who personally suffers from chronic pain, I can recall the many layers of challenges that came my way during the time when my identity transitioned from high-performance-athlete to former-athlete-with-chronic pain. The onset of a chronic condition or chronic pain can leave you feeling like your whole life has suddenly changed and you had no say in it. Of course, personal experiences of how one’s well-being is impacted from the onset of a condition can widely vary, some of the most common experiences include: grief, fear, anger, and confusion. Grief from the loss of the identity, sense of agency, lifestyle, and body you once had. Fear of what this means for your health, your relationships, and how your life will look like moving forward. Anger towards the injustice of the situation. And the confusion around how to navigate this new and difficult situation that you now find yourself in.
So how does one navigate the new complex territory of life with a chronic condition? I’m going to invite you to consider the weather. Yes, it’s true that It’s out of our control if it’s sunny, rainy, cloudy, or stormy outside. But I’d like to remind you that you do have the ability to grab an umbrella so you don’t get as wet, that you can grab a sweater so you don’t get as bad of a chill, or you can lather on some sunscreen so you don’t get a burn.
There are things that we can do to mitigate how we’re impacted by the things that are out of our control. While recognizing that we may have experienced legitimate loss, we can also legitimately gain some powerful agency in our lives too. While the concept of grabbing an umbrella, or putting on some sunscreen can sound rather simple, the implementation of this process may not feel so naturally straightforward. One may ask: “Okay, but where do I find such an umbrella that will protect me from the torrential downpour of my chronic migraines?”
Awareness is a powerful place to start, regardless of the clinical issue at hand. Start by identifying your current behavioural, cognitive, and emotional go-to’s in these moments of downpour: Do you desperately look for any form of shelter when it rains, regardless if it’s a good shelter or not? Do you become resentful over the weather being out of your control? Do you ruminate over the unfairness of the weather? Are you avoiding the rain all together by always staying inside? Sometimes we can get hooked by patterns of thinking or get hit from behind by big waves of emotions. This can be distressful, no doubt. Sometimes we engage in avoidance behaviours, whether we know it or not, as a way to deal with these distressful thoughts and emotions.
Avoidance is an extremely common coping mechanism that many people develop over time (this is something that I found myself doing as well, I might add). We may be engaging in avoidance strategies without even knowing it: like not going for a walk because we’re in pain and therefore want to avoid more pain (even though we ultimately know that movement and staying active is so important), or avoiding that same walk because we know we will simply get frustrated, then mad, then sad afterwards with the fact that we can’t walk as far as we used to. Be curious about any ways in which you may be avoiding triggering your chronic condition or triggering uncomfortable thoughts or feelings related to your condition. How well are these strategies serving you? They may provide you immediate relief but do they serve you in the long run?
Perhaps your cognitive, emotional, or behavioural go-to’s have not been mentioned here. There’s a whole spectrum of experiences and responses to crappy weather! I invite you to simply be curious about what yours may be. Once you consider your current weather go-to’s, take some time to consider the following concepts that can potentially serve as umbrellas for you when it’s raining:
- Practicing grounding techniques when you get hit by another big wave of emotions (breathing, focusing on senses, progressive muscle relaxation)
- Creating space between you and your thoughts around your chronic condition (cognitive defusion)
- Practicing gratitude for the parts of your body that do work or aren’t in pain.
- Identifying what your core values are
- Finding behaviours and activities that are driven by these core values in lieu of avoidance-driven behaviours
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it can be a place to start thinking about things we can use to protect us when the weather gets bad. I want to acknowledge that the process of exploring and finding your umbrella is not intuitive or necessarily straightforward. As with most things, it can take time, and trial and error.
The counselling/psychotherapy process can help with this exploration. It can offer a safe space for you to:
- Identify your current patterns of coping that aren’t serving you so well,
- Process what this experience has been like for you,
- Develop healthier coping tools specific to you and your needs,
- Learn what your personal umbrella looks like, and
- Help you ultimately learn how to thrive, rather than just cope, while living with your chronic condition.
So, consider this – what do you do when it “rains”?