How to Live Well with Chronic Health Problems

How to Live Well with Chronic Health Problems

Dealing with being sick when there is a quick fix is one thing. But what if you can’t just take a pill? You may face a health problem that lasts a long time. Or a serious one you’ll live with for the rest of your life. 

Tackling those long-lasting health issues calls for an ongoing focus on your health. So along with making regular visits to your doctor, it’s vital to have a broad plan for keeping yourself as healthy as you can.

Do You Have a Chronic Health Issue?

Called chronic conditions, long-term illnesses include lung disease, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. More than half of adults in the U.S. have a long-term health issue. And many have two or more of these illnesses.

Some big risk factors for chronic disease are tobacco use, poor food choices, being inactive and drinking too much alcohol. Making changes can help you manage your illness and even avoid other health problems.

Regular health exams can help you find out if you have a long-term health problem. It’s important to find these problems as early as possible so you can get the care you need. If you think you have a chronic disease, your doctor can help you figure out next steps, which might involve a diagnostic test or screening.

Once you know what you’re facing, it’s time to find out what steps you can take to protect your health. 

Make a Plan

It’s easy to be overwhelmed and anxious when you get bad news. It may seem more manageable and less stressful if you can break the problem down into individual steps you can take to deal with it.

Start by learning as much as you can about your illness. Ask your doctor to explain the problem and what the medicine and treatment options are. Ask for information about any lifestyle changes you need to make. Your doctor or other health care provider can also help direct you to reliable information sources online.

Once you know more about your health issue, you can work on finding ways to manage it, and your stress.

Build Your Team
You don’t have to manage your health problems all on your own. Finding others you can turn to for support can help you better manage your health.

Good options include:

  • Nurses, dietitians or other experts
  • Pain specialist
  • Mental health professional (counselor, social worker, psychologist, etc.)
  • A local or online support group of people with the same health problem
  • Family and friends

Take Care of Your Mental Health, Too
It’s important to work through your feelings about your health problem. At first, you may be angry, scared or sad. People with chronic pain often struggle with sleep disturbances, fatigue, mood changes, depression and anxiety. This may cause behavior changes that can make it harder to cope. It may help to talk about your concerns and feelings with family members, friends or a professional. Seeing a mental health professional can help you manage pain in a number of ways, including:

  • Learning to challenge unhelpful thoughts about pain
  • Developing new ways to think about problems and find solutions
  • Tracking stress triggers that can increase pain
  • Learning relaxation techniques to keep stress levels under control
  • Making lifestyle changes so you can continue to work and play
  • Learning ways to sleep better
  • Learning goal setting

Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself. Keeping good relationships can help your mental and physical health. Be sure to regularly spend time with friends and family.

Look for Other Ways to Relieve Your Stress
Join a support group. Make time for activities like meditation or a hobby that relaxes you. Try spending time outdoors. These suggestions have been shown to lower stress levels and even help feelings of anxiety and depression. Make sure you prioritize getting good quality sleep. Lack of sleep can make your stress and fatigue worse.

Add Motion
You may feel better in general if you step up your activity level. There may be certain activities that can help your specific health issue. Strength training and better flexibility can bring health benefits to those with long-term illness.

There may also be activities that you should not do, so be sure to check with your doctor before you increase your activity level or start a new activity.

If you’re not already active, start with small steps and try different things to see what works best for you. Try walking or some other way of keeping active. Some chronic pain can be helped with stretching exercises or yoga.

Learning more about steps you can take to handle your health problem can help both your physical and mental health.

Sources: Chronic Diseases in America,   Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021; 10 Steps for Coping with a Chronic Condition,   Harvard Medical School, 2017; Exercise and Chronic disease: Get the Facts,   Mayo Clinic, 2020; 6 Tips for Better Days with a Chronic Condition,   Web MD, 2016

Originally published 3/6/2020; Revised 2021