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6 ways to handle chronic illness burnout

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Living with a chronic illness can leave you feeling exhausted and burned out. Here’s how to take a step back and put self-care first.

Hallie Levine

By Hallie Levine

When you hear the word “burnout,” you might imagine people who are overworked and exhausted by their jobs. But burnout is also a real issue among people who have chronic illnesses.

Up to 50% of people with a long-term disease experience depression. And almost 25% of these patients also report severe exhaustion.

“I see this over and over again in my patients with chronic disease. They're dealing with conditions like Type 2 diabetes, cancer or asthma,” says Frank Sileo, PhD. He’s a psychologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey, who has lived with Crohn's disease for over 30 years. “They feel like they’ve just had enough of doctor appointments, medications and lab work. They’re tired of repeating themselves to doctors again and again.”

It can be tough to juggle your illness on top of your job, family, social life and more. But it’s possible to create a better balance, Sileo says. Here’s how.

(It’s also possible to save up to 80% on your prescriptions. Just show this free Optum Perks discount card when you go to the pharmacy.)

Accept that you can’t control your illness

“Many people enter a state of grief once they realize that their condition is never going to go away,” says Kathryn Brandt, DO. She’s the chair of primary care at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Don’t dwell on ways to “cure” your disease. Instead, think about ways that you can live a full life with your illness.

“There’s a tendency in health care to try to fix things by constantly tweaking medications,” Dr. Brandt notes. “Instead, patients should think about their values and pleasures in life. What can they do within the parameters of their condition?”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

There’s no doubt that life with a disease that is long term can cause tension between you and your loved ones. Forty percent of people with Parkinson’s disease report that the stress of always needing help creates relationship strain.

Still, it’s important to have strong social support that you can lean on when you don’t feel well, Sileo says. Even if it’s just a handful of close friends. Research shows that people who live with chronic illness who have social support report better quality of life and well-being.

“You need people to rely on,” he says. “Someone who can grab your kids from baseball practice while you go get chemotherapy.”

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Practice mindfulness

There’s something to be said for living in the moment. One study found that people with chronic diseases who practiced mindfulness reported better mood, coping skills and quality of life.

“Mindfulness allows you to get in touch with yourself. Then you’re more in tune with your feelings and emotions,” Sileo says.

One mindfulness tool you can use is a body scan. Lie on your back with your eyes closed. Focus on your left foot. Feel any and all sensations in this area, including pain. Now move up to your left ankle and repeat the process. Keep going throughout your entire body. If your mind wanders, gently return the focus to your feet with no judgment.

Let yourself laugh

Laughter releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes you feel better, Sileo says. A 2021 Journal of Pain Research study suggests that patients with chronic pain who underwent 2 weeks of “humor training” reported more reduction in discomfort than a control group.

So go ahead: Put on your favorite funny movie or call a friend who makes you giggle. It could really help.

Stay active

Getting up from the couch may be the last thing you want to do when you’re struggling with a chronic illness. But moving your body can have a strong positive effect on your mood.

People with a chronic disease who exercise 2 to 3 times a week are less likely to be depressed than those who are sedentary. That’s according to a 2019 review of 24 studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Rest

Even when you’re busy, it’s important to listen to your body. Don’t push yourself when you feel tired, Sileo says. Sleep should be high on your to-do list. Lack of shut-eye has been linked to the worsening of chronic diseases — among them heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and depression.

Take the time to recharge your batteries. “It can be as simple as a 10-minute walk or bubble bath,” Sileo says. “A lot of us say we don’t have time, but then we end up spending 20 minutes scrolling through Facebook. Self-care is just as important.”

And it’s important to download the Optum Perks free mobile app. You can compare prices of medications at pharmacies near you.

 

Additional sources
Link between chronic illness and depression: Anxiety & Depression Association of America
Report on chronic illness patients who also experience fatigue: Scientific Reports (2021). “Fatigue in Patients with Chronic Disease: Results from the Population-Based Lifelines Cohort Study”
How social support can benefit Parkinson’s disease patients: The Parkinson Alliance
Study on how mindfulness affects patients with chronic illness: Current Opinion in Psychology (2019). “Mindfulness and Physical Disease: A Concise Review”
Study on how humor affects chronic illness symptoms: Journal of Pain Research (2021). “Evaluation of a Humor Training for Patients with Chronic Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial”
Review of articles studying the link between exercise and mood of chronic illness patients: British Journal of Sports Medicine (2019). “Aerobic exercise alleviates depressive symptoms in patients with a major non-communicable chronic disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis”