Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

Being diagnosed with a chronic condition brings up a lot of questions. Some of them include: What’s my life going to be like? How will my relationships be affected? Will I be normal? And the ultimate question: why me?

Did any of these questions come up for you? Along with a few of your own?

And then there are the steps forward followed by steps back that are part of getting through the first year.

Most likely, you’ve had your share of emotional ups and downs. Like anger, sadness, and fear. Those are the big ones.

I grew up in Michigan where we used to have a saying that went something like: if you don’t like the weather in Michigan just wait awhile because it’s sure to change. In working with my clients, I’ve seen that this might also be a good way to describe the emotional impact of being newly diagnosed.

Learning to cope

My clients talk to me about how the initial shock of receiving an unexpected diagnosis at some point gives way to feelings that can be unfamiliar, scary, and at times overwhelming. Experiencing all those emotions, as difficult as that can be, is a big part of learning to live with your chronic condition.

Here’s how to cope:

Let yourself feel. Putting a lid on your emotions doesn’t make them go away. Actually it does the opposite. It makes them stronger. Feelings are just feelings, so let them bubble up and release them into the light of day. Go off to a quiet place and do it on your own, if that works best for you, or find a willing listener. Have a good cry if you need to.

Be kind and patient! Show yourself the compassion you would show to someone else in your shoes. You’re doing the best you can.

Find a safe place to talk. Find someone who can listen without making you feel judged, and who won’t get caught up in trying to “fix” you because of their own feelings of helplessness. You may have a family member or a friend who can help, but if you don’t, consider talking to a mental health professional who is experienced in working with clients who are facing chronic conditions.
 
Don’t report yourself to the positive thinking police. Familiar feelings, new feelings, “good” ones, “bad” ones … don’t confuse maintaining an optimistic attitude—which promotes health—with denying yourself permission to let yourself feel the way you feel. It’s all normal.

Confront the fear factor. Fear is only a feeling. Struggling against it can keep you frozen in place. Acknowledge your fear, and you take a lot of its power away, even if it comes back to visit once in awhile.

Consider this perspective: you’re going through a grief process. A chronic condition most likely means that life isn’t going to be the way you thought it would be. With that realization comes a feeling of loss. And like any other loss, it is only human to grieve. Through grief, we learn to accept, and prepare ourselves to move forward in life.

Make a spiritual connection. Embracing a higher power can mean a lot of things. Being part of a religious denomination. Incorporating spiritual practices like meditation. Spending time with people you care about. Reading books or listening to music that inspires you. Spirituality, as you define it, can help you to get through a difficult time.

Accept the “new normal.” Why me? Go ahead and ask that question. A diagnosis is another reminder that life isn’t fair. And it’s left you at a fork in the road. You can fall into hopelessness or you can be hopeful. Sure, life may be different. And no, you didn’t choose this. But look at it this way: when you admit to what you don’t have control over, you free yourself up to focus on what you can control.

Choose to get moving. Update your life strategy based on what’s realistic and what’s possible. Seize the day, each and every day.

Just diagnosed? Take good care of yourself. Body, mind, and spirit.

What has helped you adjust to life with a chronic health condition? Are some things still difficult? Share your experiences and advice below.