One of the biggest challenges of living with a chronic illness has to do with managing the onslaught of thoughts, emotions, and feelings that arise in response to your experiences. For example, let’s say you wake up one morning feeling weaker than usual. You have your physical experience and the corresponding thoughts, emotions, and feelings in response. Your thought response is: ‘Oh no. My condition is getting worse’. Your emotional response is fear. Your feeling response is to worry.
Emotions versus feelings
Now let’s take a step back and look at this. You might be wondering what the difference is between an emotion and a feeling. Emotions are predominantly physiological experiences that come and go relatively quickly. We often have simultaneous reactions to our emotions that revolve around clinging to the sensation or pushing it away. For example, we cling to an emotion of joy and want to get rid of an emotion of fear.
So, if we return to our example. There is an initial physiological experience of weakness upon waking in the morning. This is followed almost simultaneously by a recognition of the sensation of weakness and an emotional fear response. Then there is an almost simultaneous reaction to the fear of wanting it to go away and also thoughts about your condition getting worse. The thoughts in response to the emotion in response to the initial experience of weakness create a more sustained feeling state of worry.
This might seem tedious but it is so important to step back and understand this process. If we do not step back and examine, we are going to be at the mercy of any given experience. The next step is to look at what we can control and what we cannot control. If we focus on what we cannot control, it will inevitably contribute to a sense of helplessness, which will only serve to exacerbate the bad feelings because all of these things feed off each other.
If we focus on the emotion, by trying to get rid of it, we will also be feeding the bad feelings and the helplessness. In other words, the initial physiological experience and the emotion are the things we cannot control. They already happened. The thoughts and ensuing feelings are the things we can work on observing, understanding, and changing.
Let’s go back to the example. You wake up feeling weak and have an emotional fear response. The thought is about your condition getting worse. You recognize that you are having that thought, practice allowing it to come and go without feeding it or attaching to it. This awareness and subtle intervention serves a hugely important purpose. It breaks the bridge between the anxious thought and the creation of an anxious feeling state.
Anxiety takes up a tremendous amount of mental space. The more anxious you are, the more myopic your vision becomes. Your entire nervous system enters into fight-flight and increased stress hormones. Paying attention to your thoughts and the impulsive nature of the mind is like a superpower. Breaking the bridge means you do not go into fight-flight and your stress hormones do not increase. It means you have more space to think and feel and deal with the situation in a way that will be better for you.
Learning to live with a chronic illness: It’s all about practice
This is all easier said than done. It’s not a linear process. Rather, it is a practice to cultivate and work on an ongoing basis. You can start by trying to separate out your initial experiences, emotions, thoughts and feeling states. It would be great to keep a journal and write them down. Try to come up with alternate thoughts and feelings. This is difficult stuff, but I cannot overestimate how important it is. Be patient and compassionate with yourself. Good luck!
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If you haven’t already read the book, it’s a great place to start: Living With Chronic Illness Handbook.
David B. Younger, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in working with people with chronic health conditions with a web-based private practice and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 13-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old toy poodle.