Why do you feel overwhelmed when you have a chronic health condition

Dealing with a chronic illness diagnosis can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling lost, frustrated, and even powerless. Chronic illnesses can cause physical and emotional challenges, which may lead to you feeling overwhelmed and even suffer burnout over time.

Coping with a chronic illness diagnosis is an ongoing process, and it’s essential to learn how to manage your emotions effectively and think about how you react and respond to the curve balls life throws at you.

Even after you’ve accepted your diagnosis, the uncertainty about your future and the unpredictability of day-to-day life is a lot to deal with. It doesn’t take much to push someone with a chronic illness into overwhelm and burnout. Illness can overwhelm you socially, cognitively, emotionally, and physically — taking a massive toll.

Maybe most days you manage okay, but there are times when you may go from being overwhelmed-but-functioning to completely floored by your condition and everything else life throws at you.

 

Things that may cause overwhelm when you have a chronic illness

Overwhelming factors may be big or small, they may happen all at once or creep up on you over time:

  • A new diagnosis
  • A change in symptoms
  • starting, stopping or changing medications
  • Visiting a new doctor
  • a set back to treatment
  • really long waiting times for appointments
  • Losing your ability to carry out certain tasks
  • chronic pain
  • financial stress
  • financial stress
  • losing a job or having to change job/ profession
  • having to cancel plans

I know first hand how hard it is to mange appointments, symptoms, therapies, eat a healthy diet, get as much physical activity as you can, avoid negative coping mechanisms like alcohol, exploring the right stress-relief activities like meditation, keep up to date with new treatments or simply ask for help when you need it and stay in touch with family and friends. It’s a lot – then managing it all for my kids added another layer of overwhelm to the mix.

Doing it ALL can be really overwhelming.

As a life coach, I’m here to help you navigate through the stages of burnout and offer tips on how to cope when you feel overwhelmed by your chronic illness diagnosis.

 

Let’s understand acute vs. chronic stress

It’s essential to understand the difference between acute stress and chronic stress.

Acute stress is a type of stress that happens in response to an immediate threat or danger. For example, if you’re walking in the park and a dog starts chasing you, your body will go into “fight or flight” mode and release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This type of stress is helpful in the short term because it helps you react quickly to danger.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a type of stress that happens over a long period of time, often months or years. This type of stress can be caused by ongoing problems like financial difficulties, relationship issues, or work stress or a chronic health problem. Chronic stress can be harmful to your health because it can lead to high levels of stress hormones in your body over an extended period of time. This can cause negative health effects like anxiety, depression, heart disease, and digestive problems. A double whammy. Your stress about your health over time and if chronic can further affect your health!

 

The Stages of Overwhelm

This graphic shows really well.  As the demands and pressures increase, so does performance, but there is a sweet spot where you are performing at your best.  Some people describe this as flow state.

As demand and pressures continue to increase over time performance can decrease and you can slip into overload or even burnout.

It is so easy to tip from being in you best performance zone in to feeling overwhelmed by your chronic illness.  One minute you feel like you are winning, you have it all going on.  Spinning all the plates.  The next there are just too many plates to keep spinning.  You haven’t got the energy to keep them all going.

There is a big difference between functional overload, where you are overwhelmed but functioning and dysfunctional overload, where you just feel floored by everything; your condition, life, all the things.  As you start to move down the curve, the demands and pressures are still there, maybe they are increasing or maybe there is just no let up from those demands, you will move from functional overload into dysfunctional overload and this is where burnout can occur.

Once you know where you are on this curve then you are better placed to apply interventions to help you perform at a sustainable level.

 

Symptoms can be wake up calls

When I started work as a teacher full time my usual coping mechanisms just didn’t work.  After a long summer break the autumn term usually went OK, I could keep going pretty well but was often ill over the Christmas break as my body was screaming at me with symptoms by the time we broke for the Christmas holidays. Despite resting, I would always start the Spring term tired and it felt like a hard slog to get to half term. This is when I started getting more and more illnesses.

I felt like I was always driving around with my body’s check engine light on, convincing myself that I would be OK.

I distinctly remember having two or three weeks off of work for things that the GP could never put his finger on ‘glandular fever like illness’ for example or ‘fatigue’.  I was bloody exhausted all the time.  I would rest, reset and go again. Constantly swinging from one end of the curve to another and each time reaching overload more quickly.  What I was doing every time was ignoring the symptoms until I got sick or was completely overwhelmed by my symptoms and couldn’t carry on.

It won’t come as a surprise to you that I eventually left the teaching profession.  A combination of diagnoses, fatigue, ever increasing and more serious symptoms and overwhelm.

It was way after I left work, was diagnosed with multiple chronic health conditions and had settled into life as a disabled mum that a big shift came in the way I lived and experienced my symptoms, when I started to see them not as an enemy to fight or override but as signals alerting me to overstretch.

If a fuel warning light comes on on a car you don’t just drive it regardless. You stop and refuel. We need to take a similar approach to our symptoms and energy.

Once we learn to listen to our body, then we can develop better ways of working towards better performance. This is so important particularly if you have a chronic health condition. Knowing what is normal for you, what symptoms and signs come when you are pushing too much and slipping into overwhelm really help you to recognise them. To stop.  And then choose what you want to do next.  Do you want to keep pushing or is there another choice?

There was wisdom in my body and what it was telling me. Once I started to listen to it overwhelm started to lose its grip.

 

Signs of Overwhelm

It’s important to recognise the signs of overwhelm so that you can take steps to address them. Here are some common signs of long term chronic stress, I have split them into physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms –

Physical:

  • Tired and drained
  • Low immunity
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Persistent headaches or dizziness
  • Muscle pain and tension
  • Stomach problems
  • Sexual problems

Emotional:

  • Feeling helpless
  • Feeling detached from life
  • Loss of motivation
  • Sense of failure/ self doubt
  • Decreased satisfaction in life
  • Increased negative outlook
  • Feeling overwhelmed and avoiding small stressors that will usually feel manageable

Behavioural:

  • Withdrawn from responsibilities
  • Isolated from others
  • Procrastinating
  • Getting agitated with others
  • Avoiding work
  • Lack of concentration
  • Problems switching off even when exhausted
  • Increased dependence on addictive behaviours such as smoking, drinking or over eating

 

Coping with Overwhelm from your chronic illness

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or experiencing burnout, there are several things you can do to help manage your emotions and reactions. All of these things are great when you are feeling overwhelmed:

  1. Practice self-care: Get enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. These self-care practices can help reduce stress and promote a sense of well-being.
  2. Seek support: Reach out to friends and family members for support, or consider joining a support group for people with similar chronic illnesses.  Hey, even hire a coach!
  3. Manage your expectations: Set realistic expectations for yourself, and don’t try to do too much at once. Break tasks down into smaller, more manageable pieces.
  4. Practice mindfulness: Try mindfulness techniques such as meditation to help reduce stress and anxiety and help you to be more present
  5. Rest: Take breaks when you need them. Allow yourself time to rest and recharge.
  6. Practice gratitude: Focus on the things you’re grateful for in your life, even if they’re small. This can help shift your focus from negative emotions to positive ones.
  7. Focus on your strengths: this helps you to build inner resilience, it will help to lower stress levels.
  8. Breathe: from simple breathwork techniques to more focussed conscious connected breathwork – this can help to lower cortisol levels and help you feel less stress.
  9. Journal your feelings: Use a journal to break down all the overwhelming thoughts and feelings.  It is really cathartic to get it all out onto a page.
  10. Mind map: all the things that you have to do, like journaling it helps to get it all out onto a page from there you can work out what is important, what isn’t and if anything can be ditched or delegated.
  11. Do one thing: When things feel overwhelming start small, you don’t have to conquer the mountain today just take the next logical step.
  12. Get organised: Keep all of your medical appointment letters, prescriptions and important documents in one place. And keep a diary… appointments are cancelled and changed, with everything in one place  you can stay on track.

 

Can you think of which ones you could introduce as a regular practice to prevent overwhelm in the first place?

Imagine taking regular rests, having a great support network, a positive mindset born out a daily gratitude and journaling practice?  Arriving at your medical appointments super chilled and organised with a binder full of all your reports and letters, just in case.  Feels better already, right?

 

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