stages of coping


It is easy for some people to say that "everything is going to be ok" or that eventually "one will find meaning in his/her illness;" however, this can feel anything but ok for those who are not yet at that emotional place. Trying to motivate and inspire others who may be going through similar experiences can be helpful to both the one doing the motivating and to the recipients of the motivation. At the same time, it is important to take into consideration what stage of coping with one's illness a person is in. Living with chronic physical illness includes constant transitions between disparate stages of coping.

Many medical and mental health practitioners talk about the different stages people move through from the moment they receive a medical diagnosis, and as they begin to learn to adjust to and live with this diagnosis. Some believe that everyone moves through a specific sequence of stages, while others believe that this process is not so linear and that people can move through the stages in varying order. Regardless of the order, different people who live with chronic illness can be experiencing different stages of coping at different times, which depending on how this is dealt with may or may not leave some feeling misunderstood. Imagine a person who is in a period of anger. This person is angry that he or she has a chronic diagnosis and this person refuses to accept that changes in life are necessary. This person may live this period of life in a reactionary position; denying the impact of the illness and living as if nothing has changed. Another person who has been struggling with the same illness for some years tells this person, "slow down, make some adjustments, you will only make things worse for yourself." The angry person may experience the second person's advice as insulting, as a threat to one's own independence, and ultimately will feel misunderstood. It is not that the second person's advise is wrong or inconsiderate, but rather these people are in two different stages of living with their illness.

Ideally a person will transition from stages of anger, denial, hopelessness, and fear to a stages of acceptance, adjustment, and meaning. Nobody can push a person along to a more adaptive stage, but rather a person must experience the transition for him or herself. Of course this can be hard for one's loved ones who may want to help and may feel helpless in doing so. The challenge is finding a balance between acknowledging and validating the stage one is in at the moment, while staying optimistic and suggesting the possibility for change at some point in the future. Others who have gone through similar transitions because of chronic illness are in a position to empathize with people struggling to transition through these stages themselves. This empathy can go a long way. For example, "I get how frustrating it feels when your friends tell you to slow down and not go to work as much. I imagine it feels like you are useless sometimes. It makes me think about all the things you have wanted to work on but never had time to because of all the books you've always wanted to read or that writing you wanted to do, or all the friends you miss calling up on the phone." Of course the statements will be tailor made for the specific person you are talking to but the overall message is that "I get it...but there is life after chronic illness...and good life is possible."

Living with chronic illness is not a static position, but rather it is a process. Living through these transitions can feel very lonely if others do not allow one to just be in whatever stage of coping that one happens to be in at a given time. People living with chronic illness do not have to feel lonely. Loved ones can stand by their side through a natural flow of transitions, holding their hands emotionally by acknowledging what their current experience is and letting them know that it is ok to feel whatever it is that they are feeling. The more people try to force a change in their loved one, the more resistance that they might meet.