Negative Emotions with Chronic Illness

Two statements about negative emotions with chronic illness…which one describes you?

#1 Negative events and emotions are a part of life. It’s up to me how I handle them.

#2 I am worn down and overwhelmed from this situation that seems to have no end.

picture of ocean tide coming in and out
Photo by Zukiman Mohamad on

Is it possible both could be true? Yes.

You can absolutely be worn down and exhausted living with chronic illness. The stress of managing a chronic condition day after day is real.

And negative things happen in life. For some people that means divorce, a lost job, a failed dream. For others, it’s living with a chronic condition. But we do not all have the same response to negative events and emotions. The question becomes then, do we have any control over the way we handle negative emotions when living with chronic illness?

Negative Emotions

Toni Bernhard is the author of “How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness.” A former law professor, she developed an illness in 2001 that persists today. In her words:

“Our “unpositive thinking moods” can be particularly intense, because they’re often triggered by stressful thoughts and emotions that arise because of our health problems. I have days when I am just plain weary of being sick. I’ve come to think of this “unpositive thinking” as a natural response to the relentlessness of chronic illness. I don’t try to think positively at a moment like this.”

How to live well with chronic pain and illness – a mindful guide. Toni Bernhard. 2015

Ms. Bernhard speaks from the viewpoint of the person who is sick. But the same could be true for caregivers. There are days when you are tired and weary of caregiving. You feel like each morning you wake up and put on a heavy backpack of negative emotions caused by chronic illness: worry, fear, anger, exhaustion. You carry them around all day.

But, as Ms. Bernhard goes on to say, “I wait the feeling out, knowing that, like all feelings, it’s impermanent.” Does that ring true for you? Do you feel like your negative emotions eventually go away?

Or, do they feel like they last for days, weeks, and even longer? If the feelings are permanent, is there something you can do to change that?

This come from Brooke Castillo, Founder of the Life Coach School. In her podcast (When Bad Things Happen) she says:

“You’re going to get hit in the face with a stick. It doesn’t mean something has gone wrong. It means that you’re a human being on the planet and this is what happens in life. You get to decide how you want to show up for those things. You can’t decide what happens to you unfortunately, but you get to decide how you will respond, what you will think, how you will show up and what you will take from that experience to use in your life to become the person that you want to be.”

Brooke Castillo, Founder of The Life Coach School

So, negative things will happen in life. And it’s normal to feel bad about them. You didn’t choose for this chronic illness to come into your life. And you may be struggling to deal with the negative emotions your situation has created.

But if you feel you have no control over anything, then chronic illness will affect every area of your life. Your mental well-being. Relationships. Knowing your purpose in life. Finances. So, it’s important for you to learn how you can respond to and manage negative emotions better so that you can live as well as possible in difficult circumstances.

Let’s start small and discuss 2 strategies that may help your mental well-being.

What Went Well

I learned about this concept from the book Flourish by Martin Seligman. Dr. Seligman makes the case that people tend to think about what is going wrong more than what is going right. It’s human nature to focus on the negative. It takes intentional effort to think about the positive. So, make a point to set aside time each day to think about what went well. For example, I go through this process at the end of the day when everyone else has gone to bed. I finally have a few minutes of quiet to think about my day, including what went well.

What went well for you today? Maybe it was a nurse or doctor who did a great job of explaining something to you. Or your grandchild received a special award at school and called you to tell you about it. Or someone held the door open for you when you desperately needed an extra hand. Looking for something that went well induces positive emotion in your mind. That positive feeling may only last for a few minutes. But it’s a start.

Positive Mind Management

Another strategy is to take a negative thought and tweak it so it’s less negative. For example, you may feel unprepared as a caregiver. Overwhelmed with information about how to care for your loved one. Not sure about the food he should eat or the exercises he should do. You don’t feel confident you are doing everything you should be doing. Your thought might be, “I can’t do this, this is too much for me to handle.” Or, “I’m worried I am going to do something wrong.”

But can you tweak a thought to something less negative? What does it feel like if you tell yourself, “It is possible I can do this.” Or, “I did the best I could today, even if I made a mistake or two.” Or, “I did something better today than I did a week ago.”

The “tyranny of positivity” is a phrase I came across recently. It means that people are told to “think positively”, as if that alone will cure their problems. I am not suggesting this. Instead, I am suggesting that giving attention to your mental well-being is important. And too often we overlook our mental well-being as part of the solution to living better. Intentionally seeking the good in your day or tweaking a negative thought may help you weather this difficult time you are living through.

The reality is that feelings are not permanent. Similar to the ocean tide, emotions will ebb and flow. There are moments when the negative is overwhelming or deep or intense. During those moments, trying to think positively may not work. Finding someone to talk to or a support group to commiserate with might be best.

But I also want you to have hope that those moments are not permanent and will eventually pass. And that by giving attention to your mental well-being, you have the power to respond differently to negative emotions.

So, take a few minutes and ask yourself, “What went well today?”

Or, identify a constant negative thought that you have. How can you tweak that thought to something more positive?

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Disclaimer: This blog is a resource through which you may obtain information regarding your health and wellness.  Information is intended for the general reader and is not a substitute for medical advice.  The content in this blog is intended to be informational only and not interpreted as specific advice for you.  There may be delays, omissions, or inaccuracies in information contained in this blog. You should always consult with a licensed healthcare professional who is familiar with your health and past medical history before making any changes you may read about in this blog.

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