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Chronic illness burnout is real. Did you know that when you have a chronic illness, it can trigger mental and emotional issues? I didn’t know that, and I wish somebody had told me this when I was first diagnosed with Lupus and Sjogren’s. Sadly, it took years of doing things wrong before I finally made the connection of physical, mental, and emotional health.

Now that I know, I want to help you. So if chronic illness burnout is starting to affect your mental and emotional health, I get it. Here are tips for your self-healing and ways to pay it forward.

What I Didn’t Know Then About Chronic Illness Burnout

I wished I had known to be gentle or with myself, because managing a chronic illness is extremely hard. If somebody pointed out that it was natural for me to become very anxious, or even depressed, because my physical health was poor, I think I could have given myself more support and self-love. 

Furthermore, when physical health deteriorates, coping skills naturally diminish. It’s almost an impossible task to rally resources at that point. But it can be done, because I did it.

Figuring it out was like a light bulb going on. Now I count it as a fact of life and aim to share it with other autoimmune warriors. 

How It Hurt Me 

From my experience, it started when I’d sense I might have been approaching a flare. Before I had tools and resources to support myself, I spent a lot of time reacting to the flare symptoms. Reactive, rather than proactive, responses can caused my physical, mental, and emotional health to worsen.

The Predictable Pattern

The first reaction I noticed was a small panic in the form of an internal dialogue…. “How am I going to get to work? How am I going to get up in the morning? How am I going to manage the pain? It’s going to hurt! I’m going to be exhausted! I’m going to feel worse and worse…” These thought obsessions happened automatically.

Anxiety

chronic illness burnout

Today I understand I was in a mental health spiral, and it happened in a flash. I wasn’t aware of them, therefore I couldn’t give myself time and space to pause for self-healing. Taking a moment to breathe and lean into what was happening in the present, i.e. mindfulness, has worked. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

Depression

London plague

Other times when a flare started, I’d find reasons to blame myself for why I was getting sick.  Usually I judged myself for not drinking enough water. Or partially scolded myself for not wearing a mask at all times. I could criticize myself for overexertion. The list goes on. I didn’t know I have distorted thinking from years of trauma. I assumed it was normal to blame yourself for everything.

A depression reaction is the opposite of anxiety. Instead of spiraling backwards and feeling paralyzed, my anxiety tells me to “Do something right now!” This mental chatter created a sense of shutting down, making myself small, and harshly attacking myself with negative self-talk. For me, this is a form of self anger, which is a characteristic of depression. I would turn my anger inward, against myself.

Body, Mind, Heart Connection 

All of these harsh reactions have followed a predictable pattern. It would start with my physical body where I will either feel sinus pressure and pain around my eye, or my lungs will feel very heavy, or I will have a gradual increase of fatigue. Sometimes it would start in the middle of the night and then I couldn’t sleep because I was too anxious about my fearful thoughts. It was a domino affect that made everything worse.

What I Know Now

Today what I know about chronic illness burnout helps me take better care of myself. Now, I prioritize self-care, and listen to, rather than abusively yell at, my body. I have adapted practices based on my needs at the onset of an autoimmune flare. Because of this, I adjust my travel as needed.

is it safe to solo travel as a female with autoimmune disease

Chronic Illness and Physical Health

So the pattern would begin when I perceived a physical element in my body and automatically assumed it was my autoimmune disease. I’ve learned that there are many reasons my body may be feeling unwell, and jumping to the conclusion it’s a full-blown flare is not in my best interest.

What I Do

So I up my self healing regime of breathing steam to relieve pressure, go to bed extra early (like 6pm) and increase my water intake. These are simple steps, but they keep me calm and support whatever my body is going through.

Chronic Illness and Mental Health

Then the negative thoughts would bombard my brain in the form of black and white, all-or-nothing thinking, and catastrophizing. Today I know these are cognitive distortions, and can be redirected with healthy coping strategies.

What I Do

To combat a thought obsession, I ground myself in my body by taking a very deep, mindful breath. I repeat this with additional affirmations such as, “I am safe”, “I am strong”, “I am loved”. Then I focus on the present moment, and ask myself if my thoughts are true. The first time the answer comes back, “YES!” However, I continue this questioning with, “Is it REALLY true?” After a few rounds of that, the negative thinking loses its grip upon me and I can reach for more self-healing strategies. Afterwards, I sit and journal to integrate my thoughts and feelings.

Chronic Illness and Emotional Health

Finally, the last stage is emotional. I would feel very upset around what my body and my mind were telling me. This is where the trauma response really took over. My health would function as a trauma trigger, and consequently, I would experience flashbacks to my childhood memories around sickness. I’d re-feel things that happened, or what didn’t happen.

For example, my mom not being there to take care of me. Then ptsd would churn up and I’d feel re-traumatized by my sexual abuse and abandonment of my mom not protecting me. All of these reactions caused the initial problem to get bigger instead of smaller. Instead of processing my situation in proactive, healthy, self-loving ways, it was escalating and getting worse. Of course this mental and emotional dysregulation caused me stress, which exacerbated the original symptoms.

What I Do

I give myself love. Today I know how to self-soothe and self-healing through loving acts. If it’s an inner child wound, I may color in a coloring book, or grab my teddy bear. If I am at work, I use gentle self-talk to make it through the day, and practice easy does it. Whenever possible, I give myself patience and grace to only accomplish what’s absolutely necessary. When these strategies need reinforcing, I do an online therapy session. There are unlimited ways to love yourself, do whatever healthy strategies work for you.

author's teddy bear

Stopping The Cycle

 So reacting in emotional intoxicating ways is truly a hopeless situation. However, the pattern can be interrupted according to your wants and needs. There are countless ways to navigate an autoimmune flare using a proactive, mindful approach. Doing so will regulate both mental and emotional health. Here are five self-healing ways that align with a focus for your self-healing. This can be done through appreciation for nature, relying on your surroundings, or emotional release through expression. I’ve used each one, sometimes more than one at the same time, for positive calming and grounding results.

Nature Connection Meditation

Find a serene natural spot, whether it’s a quiet forest, a beach, or a park.

Engage in mindfulness meditation, focusing on the sounds, scents, and sensations around you.

Connect with the healing energy of nature to calm your mind and reduce stress.

boat launch / beach at cabins

Music Therapy or Pet Companionship

Immerse yourself in the healing power of music that resonates with your emotions.

Alternatively, spend quality time with your pets, enjoying their companionship and unconditional love.

Both music and pet interactions can be soothing, bringing joy and comfort during challenging times.

Creative Expression Therapy

Engage in creative activities that allow for self-expression and emotional release.

Try art journaling, painting, or any form of creative expression that resonates with you.

Channeling your emotions into art can be a powerful tool for processing and healing.

woman journal

Empowering Affirmations

Develop a set of positive affirmations tailored to self-healing and empowerment.

Repeat these affirmations daily, especially during challenging moments.

Affirmations can shift your mindset and reinforce your inner strength and resilience.

Mindful Breath Work

Practice mindful breathwork techniques to promote relaxation and stress reduction.

Focus on deep, intentional breathing, allowing your breath to guide you to a calmer state.

Use breathwork as a tool for centering yourself and finding peace in the present moment.

Grateful To Know

 Today I’m grateful to recognize the signs of physical health kicking up mental and emotional pain and discomfort. I can heal myself on my own, or heal with others. There are multiple support groups for autoimmune warriors that work wonders. I’ve used them and they’ve helped me tremendously. But those lessons can be easy to forget when things like work and taking care of family and households are crowding for attention. So daily practice works best for reinforcing the proactive, not reactive, responses. Now that I have tried and true experience overcoming this obstacle, I strive to use this knowledge to be of service to other chronic illness sufferers.

How Can You Help?

Chance are you will cross paths with fellow chronic illness sufferers. I do all the time. I try to live by the motto, ‘If I can’t help them, don’t hurt them’. To accomplish this, I focus on my overall well-being to ensure I have met all my needs first. That way, I don’t unintentionally start commiserating, judge or dismiss them, or make it all about me.

What It Looks Like

Show up for them when they are struggling. First and foremost, simply hold compassionate space for their physical, mental, and emotional pain. Give them your attention because being seen, especially for someone with an ‘invisible illness’ is powerful.

start solo travel for autoimmune warriors

Let them talk, because being heard is paramount. Don’t try to fix them. Just convey love and acceptance for exactly where they are. By maintaining a neutral presence, you are giving them the gift of trust. Many times us autoimmune warriors have shame around our health. Or our family and friends may ‘help’ in unhelpful ways. As fellow chronic illness survivors, we have a unique position to empower, because we really do ‘get it’.

At some later point, not necessarily in the moment of their crisis or flare, share with them your personal experience with overcoming mental health triggers from physical health symptoms. Because knowing this small detail can make a big difference. 

Final Thoughts On Chronic Illness Burnout

Autoimmune illness is primarily considered a medical diagnosis. But there are countless effects on mental and emotional health, especially in new, unexpected situations. Treating your body, mind and heart is an excellent way to practice self healing.

It’s about embracing the beautiful journey of self healing and self-discovery, and pointing your self-love toward your physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is coping with a chronic illness so difficult?

Coping with a chronic illness is difficult because of the constant adjustments required in daily life. These include, but are not limited to, ongoing management of symptoms, emotional stress of dealing with an unpredictable health, and impact on lifestyle which often leads to feelings of isolation, frustration, and uncertainty about the future.

Does chronic illness have stages of grief?

Yes, individuals with chronic illness often experience stages of grief similar to those encountered after a significant loss. These stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This grieving process is the emotional journey of coming to terms with the chronic condition, its impact on your life, and the adjustments needed to manage the illness and maintain quality of life.

What is the hardest part of chronic illness burnout?

The hardest part about chronic illness burnout is the overwhelming sense of exhaustion and defeat that comes from the constant battle to manage symptoms, adhere to treatment plans, and cope with the emotional and physical toll of the illness. This can lead to a inability to handle daily tasks, reduced motivation, and feelings of isolation, making it difficult to find the energy or hope to continue fighting.

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