Overcoming Stigma

Having a chronic disease like COPD not only affects you physically, but emotionally and socially as well. You may find that breathlessness prevents you from doing some of the active things you once enjoyed, making you feel very different from “healthy” people. You may feel like others are staring at you because you've lost weight or need oxygen to help you to breathe. Maybe you feel badly about yourself because you can't do what others expect of you or what you “should” be able to do as a man or a woman. Worst of all, you may feel as if people — even medical professionals — blame you for bringing this disease upon yourself.

There is definitely a stigma that accompanies a chronic illness — especially one that’s associated with a lifestyle choice like smoking — and this stigma can make things even worse. The perception that family, friends, or medical professionals view you in a negative light may result in feelings of frustration, depression, embarrassment, and shame. You may feel so badly that you isolate yourself from others or don't go to the doctor when you know you should. 

It isn't easy to overcome the stigma of having COPD, and research shows that some people are able to cope with it better than others. Here are some strategies that can help:

Re-create a “new self” to fit changed circumstances.

Have you always defined yourself as an active outdoorsman or woman? If you can no longer do certain activities that you once took pride in, find some new ones that make you feel good about yourself. Instead of jogging or strenuous hiking, try lower impact exercises like walking with friends (indoors if the air quality is poor), water aerobics, or tai chi class. If you can no longer keep up with hobbies like gardening, for example, try some small container boxes on the porch. Anything that helps you to stay physically active and feel a sense of pride in yourself will keep you emotionally and socially healthy.

Develop strategies to cope while in the presence of others.

While it's important not to hide the fact that you have a chronic illness, you'll draw less attention to yourself if you plan for outings. Rest up beforehand to sustain your energy. Make sure to remember any medications or equipment you may need while away from home. If you're at a party or an event where you may have to explain why you're leaving early, quietly tell the host when you arrive.

Join a COPD support group.

Support groups are helpful in making you feel less alone with your disease and they allow you the satisfaction of helping others by sharing your own knowledge and experiences. 

Educate others. 

Consider bringing your spouse, partner, or caretaker to your doctor's appointment or your pulmonary rehabilitation visit. This will help them to understand that while COPD is a progressive lung disease, treatments can help you to have a full life for many years. 

Stand up for yourself.

If you have a history of smoking, don't allow others — even medical professionals — to treat you as if you deserve this illness because you made the choice to smoke. Many chronic conditions, such as obesity and heart disease, are caused or worsened by poor lifestyle choices. It's what you're doing right now to take care of yourself that matters most.