Tips for Making Peace with Chronic Pain and Illness

Loneliness has a devastating impact on our psychological as well as our physical health. In addition to the raw emotional pain it causes, loneliness creates self-defeating mindsets that make it difficult to reach out and connect with others, and it suppresses the function of our immune systems, increasing our vulnerability to illness and disease. Indeed, it has been well established that chronic loneliness has a damaging impact on both our physical health and our longevity. Guy Winch, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist

Blaming yourself for what’s happened is misguided because pain and illness are part of life. Once I understood that everyone faces health challenges at some point, I stopped blaming myself for becoming chronically ill (chronic illness includes chronic pain). Letting go of self-blame was accompanied by a feeling of tremendous relief because I no longer thought that life was being unfair to me or that I’d been singled out in some way.

It’s hard enough to handle the day-to-day challenges of pain and/or illness. When we add self-blame to the equation, our mental suffering multiplies several times over. But this is one type of suffering we can do something about.

We simply need to be honest with ourselves about the human condition: Everyone is subject to injury and illness; it’s a condition of being alive. For me, being alive is a gift (even if a mysterious one), and that means I want to find ways to live as rich and fulfilling a life as I can within my limitations. There’s no way around it: Chronic illness has drastically limited what I can do, but it’s not my fault.

Accepting that life is uncertain and unpredictable is the first step toward making peace with your circumstances. If we had control over our lives, we’d make sure that all our experiences were pleasant ones. But the fact is, more often than not, we don’t get what we want (or we get what we don’t want). At first blush, this may sound like a dark view of the world. It isn’t to me, though, because I’d rather know what to expect than to live in ignorance and be continually disappointed when things don’t turn out as I wish they would.

Accepting that life is uncertain and unpredictable and that one consequence of this is that we won’t always get our way opens the door to living with equanimity. By equanimity, I’m referring to a calm and balanced state of mind that is able to accept with grace whatever comes our way.

It’s natural to feel lonely when you suddenly become isolated. Many of us have been forced to give up active work and social lives for relative isolation. Such a drastic change can be traumatic and bring on a loneliness we’ve never felt before. With time and an effective set of practices, we can turn that loneliness into a feeling of peaceful solitude much of the time. That said, there’s nothing wrong with feeling lonely at times. I still do. When loneliness pays a visit, I treat it as an old (if uninvited) friend and do something soothing until it passes.

If at all possible, connect with others via the Internet. Late into the last century, people who were chronically ill only had letter writing, the telephone, or in-person visits as a way to connect with others. I’m unable to do much of the last two, and so, had I become chronically ill several decades ago, I’d be almost completely isolated. Today, people who are partially or wholly housebound can connect with others personally, using email, texting, FaceTime or Skype, online forums and groups, etc. In addition, the Internet allows us to keep up-to-date on medical news that relates to our specific health challenges.5

Learning to be happy for others makes your limitations bearable—and can make you happy, too. If the idea of feeling happy for others, who are out and about, having a good time, sounds foreign to you, it’s not a surprise: The English language doesn’t even have a word to describe this feeling. I hope you’ll try it, though, because it can help you feel better about your limitations.

Start by bringing to mind someone who’s happy about something that you don’t crave yourself, such as winning a sporting event or an Academy Award. As you think about that person’s joy, try to feel happy for him or her. Once you’re able to do that, move from there to feeling happy when a loved one is joyful over something.I still occasionally get envious or resentful when I hear about people doing things I wish I could do, but at least I have a tool for turning those emotions around. It’s worth the effort, because envy and resentment feel awful, physically and mentally. With practice, we can go a long way toward eliminating them from our emotional lives.

Make self-compassion your first priority. I’ve saved my highest priority for last. I get a lot of emails from people who’ve read How to Be Sick. The most common remark is that, until they read the book, it hadn’t occurred to them that they could—or should—be kind to themselves. And that’s all self-compassion means: being kind to yourself, being nice to yourself. It’s the best way to ease the mental suffering that comes with chronic illness.

Many people find it easy to be compassionate toward others but are their own harshest critics. They don’t think they’re deserving of their own kindness. In my view, there’s never a valid reason to be unkind or harsh with your-self. Of course, you can learn from your mistakes. But learn… and then move on. Don’t get stuck in negative self-judgment over what you said or did. It’s hard enough to struggle with your health every day; don’t force yourself to struggle with self-criticism, too.

Never forget that despite your health challenges, you’re still a whole person, and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.