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Coping With Chronic Illness and Anxiety

When you have a chronic illness, knowing you will live with your illness from now on can cause fear and anxiety. For many people, the symptoms of their illness, and the impact those symptoms have on their quality of life, can bring on any number of emotions. So what should you do to help cope […]

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chronic illness

When you have a chronic illness, knowing you will live with your illness from now on can cause fear and anxiety. For many people, the symptoms of their illness, and the impact those symptoms have on their quality of life, can bring on any number of emotions. So what should you do to help cope with anxiety associated with your chronic illness?

Why Chronic Illness Causes Anxiety 

A chronic illness diagnosis comes with so many questions. How will my life change? Will my quality of life be affected? When will my symptoms flare up? It can be hard to quiet your mind when you’re trying to adjust to a life changing diagnosis, and that causes anxiety. 

Some people feel most anxious about how their illness will affect their daily lives, while others worry about when their symptoms will arise. Regardless, anxiety about illness can take its toll on your ability to participate in and enjoy your life. How can you move forward and be realistic about your diagnosis and its effect on your life at the same time?

The best thing you can do to help manage your anxiety is to accept the facts of your illness while finding healthy coping strategies that allow you to move forward and live your life. Your chronic illness may be walking by your side from now on, but it doesn’t have to stand in your way. 

Breathing Techniques to Cope with Anxiety and Chronic Illness

Coping with a chronic illness, and the associated anxiety, can be a challenge at times, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and unsure what to do. Thankfully, with the right healthy coping strategies in place, you can calm both your mind and your body to help manage your anxiety before it gets the best of you. Even better—some of these strategies can help you manage your chronic illness symptoms, too. 


You’ve probably been told to take a deep breath when you felt panicked in the past. It’s the right move. The right breathing techniques really can reduce your heart rate and blood pressure, boost your immune system and positively impact your brain activity.[1][2] The more you practice these breathing techniques, the better you’ll get at breathing more efficiently. These techniques can become a go-to for helping you cope with your anxiety. 

The following breathing techniques can help you improve your breathing efficacy over time, as well as helping you slow your breathing down when you feel stressed or anxious.

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing: This technique can help you relearn how to breathe effectively using your diaphragm. It can help you combat the fast, shallow breathing that often accompanies anxiety. Practice this technique for 5-10 minutes at a time, 3 or 4 times per day.
    • Start by lying down on your back. Bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the floor. Place a pillow underneath your knees to support your back, if needed.
    • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly below your belly button. 
    • Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose, gently pushing your belly out. Focus on keeping the muscles in your neck, shoulders, chest, and ribs still while feeling the hand on your belly rise. 
    • Exhale slowly through pursed lips while pushing gently upward and inward on your belly to empty your lungs. 

Note: This exercise may be hard work at first. Practice regularly, and it will get easier.

  • Pursed Lip Breathing: This technique slows your breathing down, improving ventilation by opening your airways. Practice this technique 3 or 4 times per day to get used to the process. Then use this technique anytime you feel short of breath.
    • Start by sitting comfortably and relaxing the muscles in your neck and shoulders. 
    • Then, with your mouth closed, slowly inhale a regular breath through your nose for a count of two. 
    • Purse your lips as though you are going to blow out a candle, then exhale slowly through your pursed lips for a count of four.

Practice these breathing techniques when you’re relaxed. It will help you use them more effectively when you feel anxious. Working on your breathing technique daily can truly impact how you feel and improve your overall sense of wellbeing. However, you also need to accept what you can and cannot do. 

Navigating Stressful Times With a Chronic Illness

Part of adjusting to a chronic illness is accepting that you will have to make some adjustments in your life—particularly in times of stress. You may be unable to do everything you used to do. Insisting on continuing will only cause you stress and pain. These days, there’s also the pandemic to consider. If you have a chronic illness, trying to cope with your illness during a pandemic can bring additional anxiety, particularly during the upcoming holiday season. If you’re worried about holiday plans and navigating the pandemic with your chronic illness, healthy coping strategies are essential. 

Start with the breathing techniques above to help you catch your breath anytime you feel anxious or overwhelmed. Breathing techniques can get you through holiday travel or through long periods wearing face coverings. If family gatherings are tiring, breathing can renew your energy. 

Next, think about ways to minimize stress for yourself during this time. This may mean staying home for the holidays or reducing what you usually do so that you have fewer responsibilities. Because of the pandemic, travel may be doubly stressful, so consider joining family gatherings over video chat instead. If you typically host, ask someone else to take over. 

Coping Strategies Can Help Reduce Anxiety

Your chronic illness will require adjusting your life to reduce your stress and minimize anxiety. In many cases, that simply means incorporating strategies like breathing techniques to help you manage your anxiety. In other cases, you may need to alter what you do to minimize stress. Regardless, having the right coping strategies in your pocket goes a long way in reducing anxiety when you have a chronic illness. 

Sources:

[1] Bullock, B Grace. “What Focusing on the Breath Does to Your Brain.” Greater Good Magazine, Greater Good Science Center, 31 Oct. 2019, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_focusing_on_the_breath_does_to_your_brain. 

[2] Cuda, Gretchen. “Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever.” NPR, NPR, 6 Dec. 2010, www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131734718/just-breathe-body-has-a-built-in-stress-reliever. 

Sources not cited:

“Chronic Illness & Mental Health.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 5 Nov. 2020, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/chronic-illness-mental-health/index.shtml. 

Greene, Paul, et al. “Living with Chronic Illness.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, 5 Nov. 2020, adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/living-chronic-illness. 

Madell, Robin. “Battling the Stress of Living with Chronic Illness.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 1 Apr. 2019, www.healthline.com/health/depression/chronic-illness. 

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