Tips for relationships and coping with chronic illnesses


Relationships and Chronic Illness


A recent study by the National Health Council discovered that 40% of Americans suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and cancer. A component often missed in discussing chronic sickness is its ability to affect how individuals build and support relationships.  

When illness drives a wedge between relationships, the effects can be devastating. WebMD suggests the secret to maintaining and strengthening a relationship when coping with chronic illness stems from knowledge of what to expect and how to react.

What should I watch for with a difficult diagnosis?

"In addition to affecting the biology of a person, a chronic illness can also have an effect on a person’s psychological, social, sexual and spiritual functioning," said Kayla Wilbur, LCSW, Integrated Cancer Care navigator in Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Center for Advanced Therapy. "It's important to ask questions and communicate to a healthcare provider about how you and your loved one is feeling on all of these aspects. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other members of your healthcare team such as social workers, psychologists or chaplains in addition to family and friends for assistance."

“Caregiver stress or fatigue is very common, with statistics showing that at least half of all caregivers show signs of physical decline,” said Sung J. Cho, Psy.D., a board-certified clinical psychologist with Swedish Covenant Medical Group. “This can be due to the increase in physical and emotional stress compounded with the lack of engaging in self-care activities such as seeing one’s doctor for their own physical decline, poor diet and sleep and a lack of exercise and activities that promote one’s own sense of satisfaction and well-being.” 

Coping With Chronic Illness


How do I best cope with these changes?

1. Communicate about everything.

Both members of the relationship should feel comfortable discussing the illness and personal needs. An open door policy can help you grow closer, avoid misunderstanding and better empathize with one another.  

“Many patients and their partners or loved ones may be reluctant to talk about their illness for fear of increasing further distress, getting upset or burdening the other with their own anxieties or fears," said Kayla. "Enhance your communication by discussing with your partner the supportive communications you find especially helpful and which communications are not helpful to you in dealing with stress.”

2. Manage your anxiety.

Chronic illness comes with a lot of uncertainties. It’s healthy to think about these things, but it’s not good for you to obsess or stress over them. Individuals coping with chronic illness should work to adopt healthy lifestyle habits to help ease personal stress. 

3. Be grateful for the time you share.

An illness can limit the activities you can do together. Try to be creative with what you do when you’re together, and remember to express gratitude whenever possible!

4. Maintain a healthy social life.

Social activity can help stave off depression and provide you with additional support. Should you need extra help at any point, good friends should always be willing to lend a helping hand. 

5. Take into account the caregiver’s health.

Their health is just as important as the health of the one they're caring for. In addition to keeping physically well through regular exercise and a healthy diet, it’s important to watch for signs of depression.  

“Statistics show that 1 in 3 caregivers experience depression which becomes more pronounced when self-care activities are not part of the caregiver’s repertoire,” said Dr. Cho. “It is important for caregivers to learn and realize that they will be better equipped to effectively care for a loved one when they effectively care for themselves.”

Innis w borderKayla Wilbur, LCSW, is the Integrated Cancer Care navigator in Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Center for Advanced Therapy. The Integrated Cancer Care program is a free, comprehensive program designed to help patients overcome the physical and emotional challenges of a cancer diagnosis through exercise, massage, acupuncture, support groups and nutrition counseling.

For more information, please call Kayla at 773-878-8200, ext. 6501.

Cho w borderSung J. Cho, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist with Swedish Covenant Medical Group. His clinical interests include behavioral medicine, pain management, psychological evaluation and weight management. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Cho, please call 773-878-6888.

If you begin to experiences symptoms of depression, they should be addressed immediately. If you would like to speak to a clinical psychologist with the Swedish Covenant Medical Group, please visit SwedishCovenant.org/find-a-doctor or call 773-878-6888.  



By David Modica | Published March 11, 2016
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