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- Different people have different styles of coping with injury and illness.
- The way we cope determines how we’ll face challenges.
- Productive coping might include self-compassion and mindfulness.
- Self-blame and wishing for your life to be what it was before diagnosis can be harmful coping strategies.
When faced with challenges, such as injury and illness, the way we cope determines how we’ll face it.
“Coping means you accept the conditions of your health without blaming yourself. When you blame yourself, that becomes a distraction from the skill of coping, which is to look for ways to make the best life you can out of the condition you find yourself in,” Toni Bernhard, author of “How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness,” told Healthline.
Bernhard suddenly became ill in 2001 with what doctors initially diagnosed as an acute viral infection. However, 18 years later, she’s still living with a debilitating illness that doctors now believe is an immune system dysfunction.
“I had to give up my profession as a law professor of 22 years at the University of California, which I dearly loved. I’d go to sleep saying, ‘Ok, you’ll wake up with your health restored and life back like it was,'” she said.
“My ability to cope took me 3 to 4 years to see that I wasn’t helping myself by fighting what was happening,” she added.
Stacy Kaiser, licensed psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Coping Confessions campaign, which educates people about coping behaviors as they relate to conditions such as overactive bladder, says there are two coping styles: unproductive and productive.
1. Unproductive coping
Unproductive coping involves allowing a condition to impact your life in a negative way, so that you retreat and avoid reaching out for support.
“This has to do with being stagnant and not doing what you need to do, including not talking to people who know more about whatever it is you’re dealing with, and going at it alone,” Kaiser told Healthline.
As Bernhard learned to cope with her condition, she began writing books on the topic to help others.
While she doesn’t put coping styles into categories, in her books, she discusses the barriers to healthy coping. The following fall in line with Kaiser’s description of unproductive coping.
Wanting things to be other than they are
“Constant craving and wanting things to be other than they are can be a tremendous source of suffering that also keeps you from coping successfully. If all you are doing is wishing for things to be different, then you are sitting around thinking, ‘I’m stuck in the house with nothing to do,'” said Bernhard.
She admits this isn’t easy, especially when you see others carrying on with their lives.
“They may be traveling and doing things, so you may feel envy, and sometimes I do, but if you are caught up in it all the time you are not coping or engaging with the life that you have,” Bernhard said.
After publishing four books and writing articles for Psychology Today, Bernhard says she gets emails from people all over the world talking about self-blame and their inability to feel compassion for themselves.
“We’re bombarded by media with messages that tell us if you eat this or take this supplement, you can be healthy all your life. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured and age, so not only is it wrong to be blaming yourself, it’s a distorted view of life to think that you’re going to go through it without having any medical problems,” she said.
“Some people are relatively healthy all their lives, but it’s the exception,” she continued. “Most people at some point have to deal with the fact that they are facing restrictions or have to live with pain that they never expected.”
Focusing on self-blame distracts you from finding ways to make a good life out of your situation, she adds.
“Self-blame gets in the way of being able to see what you might be able to do to make the best of what you got. That includes trying to get good medical care, but also [being able to assess] where you are with your condition, what it is that you can still do or can’t do, and what [possibilities exist] that you haven’t thought of before or tried,” said Bernhard.
2. Positive and productive coping
Kaiser says productive coping involves examining your situation and making adjustments in your life, such as educating yourself on your condition, getting support from friends and family, talking to an expert, and putting yourself in situations that allow you to be proactive.
“Chronic conditions can make people feel hopeless and helpless and if you don’t educate yourself and reach out for proper help through support from friends and experts, you can leave yourself in a situation where you are feeling worse and don’t see any hope,” said Kaiser.
She tells clients to commit to the following:
- Learn about your condition.
- Have courage to talk to your doctor rather than relying on the internet for information.
- Don’t isolate yourself, and instead reach out for support from friends and family.
Bernhard shares 3 key practices that define her coping style:
The first thing to do when life isn’t going your way is to be kind to yourself, says Bernhard.
“After being ill, I tend to go straight for self-compassion because I’ve come to see, whether you have health issues or not, life can be hard. Tell yourself: Life doesn’t always go my way. I can’t make someone love me or everyone I work with behave the way I wish they would, or my condition go away,” Bernhard said. “When you do that, this can clear the way to seeing constructive solutions for whatever problems you’re facing.”
This involves engaging and embracing your life as it is now, not as it was.
“For me, this is what I work on every day; I can’t claim to live in an equanimous state all the time. But that’s the state of ultimate peace — positively engaging in my life and looking for ways to live a life of purpose and joy despite my limitations,” said Bernhard.
Being aware of your present moment and experience without aversion or desiring for it to be different is the best practice for healthy coping, says Bernhard.
“Mindfulness is really the key and powerful tool to coping because when you’re caught up in envy and aversion and anger and hatred and [self-pity] and all of that, you’re not aware of what’s going on right now in your life,” she said.
“It’s only when you pay attention to what’s going on right now that the door opens to change and coping/seeing [that you can try something that] might be enjoyable and engaging to your life as it is,” she added.
She references a practice she calls, “Drop it” to bring people away from scary, worse-case scenario thoughts.
“When these thoughts start mushrooming, immediately look around and see what’s going on in your environment right now to take you out of those stories. Ask yourself: What are you seeing? What are you hearing? What are you thinking in your mind that makes things worse? If you notice you are feeling envy, recognizing that feeling is mindfulness [at its best] and takes the power away.”
Kaiser says the way we cope is shaped by the following:
- what we witnessed as coping strategies during childhood
- experiences we’ve had with people and relationships
- a non-thoughtful defense mechanism that leaves us in a challenged emotional state
“Once you become aware of your negative coping style and how you respond to your challenges, you can begin to manage how you’re responding and change how you cope,” said Kaiser.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.