Keeping Hope Alive

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

When life is difficult, as it often is when we have a chronic illness, one of the most important things that helps us keep going is hope for a better future. But given the many challenges, hardships, and disappointments we face, hope like that can be hard to come by. Fortunately, there are things you can do to make hope for a better future real – and then keep it alive.

Before I share some of those things with you, I want to first repeat the same advice I’ve written in many of my other posts and that I repeatedly give to my clients: give yourself LOTS of compassion for having to live with your illness and its symptoms. From my many years of experience coaching people with chronic illnesses and having one myself, I know without a doubt that it is one of the best things those of us with chronic illnesses can do for ourselves. And the suggestions I’m going to give you for keeping hope alive will work much better if you give yourself lots of compassion first.

I want to say one more thing before I give you my suggestions: not only is keeping hope alive good for our emotional health, it’s good for our physical health as well. Here’s why: People who live and contend with the symptoms of a serious illness often become angry and depressed, and being angry and depressed weakens the immune system. A weakened immune system leaves them more susceptible to flares and to other diseases.

Clearly eliminating illness-related depression and anger is important for maintaining and improving our physical health. And finding real hope for a better future is one of the most effective ways to do that.

My first suggestion for finding real hope for a better future and keeping it alive is to make a list of the good times and the successes you’ve had since your diagnosis. Maybe you had an especially enjoyable time with friends last week, got a new job last month, got married recently, heard an uplifting sermon at church, had a son or daughter graduate from high school or college last summer, had a new grandchild, or just saw a beautiful sunset. Just like everyone else, those of us with chronic illnesses have our special times, but because of our daily pain and struggles we often quickly forget about them. So start writing them down, and reread your list frequently. Doing that will remind you of those experiences and the good feelings that came with them, and will help you realize that even though you have an illness, you are still going to have more of those successes and good times in the future.

My next suggestion for making hope for a better future real and keeping it alive is to look for ways to regain control in your life. One of the worst aspects of having a chronic illness is the loss of control of our bodies and our lives the illness brings about. We often aren’t able to eat what we want, go where we want, hold the job we want, or engage in the activities we want to. The list of the things we can’t do can goes on and on, and we can easily dwell on the control we’ve lost. To make hope for a better future real and keep it alive, we need to find ways to regain control. Fortunately, total control isn’t necessary. Coaching clients, as well as studies I’ve read, have shown me that a little can go a long way.

So I suggest that you choose one small area of your life and take a small step to improve it. The step can be as small as buying a house plant for your home, getting earplugs so you can sleep better, or calling friensd you haven’t talked to in a while, and reconnecting with them. After you’ve done that, decide on and take another step, then another, and another. As you do, your hope will keep growing, and so too will the quality of your life.

My last suggestion for making hope for a better future real is to get involved in something bigger than yourself. Many people with a chronic illness–and I speak from personal experience as well as from my experience coaching others–spend too much of their time thinking about their illness. Of course we need to think about how to best treat our illness and how to live the best life possible, but when we dwell on our symptoms and how hard our lives are, we make our lives more difficult than they already are.

Instead of dwelling on your symptoms, I suggest that you look for ways to make the world a better place. Find a cause that’s important to you, such as cleaning up the environment, teaching illiterate adults to read, or helping to raise money to find a cure for your illness. Then participate regularly in whatever cause you are able. When you do, you’ll spend much less time dwelling on your symptoms and how hard your life is, and you will find you’re more hopeful about the future, and on top of that you will be making the world a better place.

These are some of my suggestions for how to make hope for a better future real and keep it alive when you have a chronic illness. I would love to hear about any that have worked well for you.

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