Having a Chronic Disease or Condition

Man taking medicine

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The word "chronic" is used in medicine to refer to any disease or condition that persists over time or is frequently recurring. The term "chronic" is often used in contrast to the word "acute," which refers to a disease or condition that comes on rapidly.

An acute illness usually starts and becomes a problem, sometimes a serious problem, very quickly. An example of an acute illness is a heart attack. A person may be fine one moment, but having a life-threatening medical emergency mere minutes later, requiring emergency medical attention.

While they may seem less scary than acute ones, chronic diseases are a greater burden on patients and the U.S. healthcare system. As treatments improve for acute illnesses and they are resolved successfully more often, chronic conditions require years of medical management.

In the United States, 25% of adults suffer from at least two chronic conditions. For example, consider an overweight person who has both diabetes and heart disease.

Chronic Diseases and Conditions

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic diseases and conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems.

Many of the most common chronic conditions in the U.S. are the result of bad habits such as poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. These contribute to years of chronic disease management and often also increased mortality as well as the dramatic rise in healthcare spending in the U.S. over the past few decades.

This is why an increasing focus on disease prevention has developed in recent years through tobacco cessation, improved nutrition, and increased physical activity. Here's a list of some other common chronic diseases and conditions:

  • ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease)
  • Alzheimer's Disease and other Dementias
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Diabetes
  • Eating Disorders
  • Heart Disease
  • Obesity
  • Oral Health
  • Osteoporosis
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) Syndrome

An Example of a Chronic Condition

Dysthymia is a type of chronic depression in which a person may have symptoms that are less severe than major depressive disorder but that linger for at least two years (or one year in children and adolescents).

Although dysthymia is less severe than major depression, its long-lasting nature can make it difficult for an affected person to function in his or her daily life. It may also put the person at an increased risk for suicide.

About half of those with dysthymia will have an episode of major depression at some point in their lives. When an episode of major depression is layered on top of dysthymia, this is referred to as double depression. Treatment for dysthymia usually includes antidepressant medication and/or psychotherapy.

Treatment

Unlike treating an acute illness, treatment for a chronic condition likely involves multiple approaches to alleviate the physical symptoms as well as manage the mental toll. In fact, depression is a common complication of chronic illness. This treatment can include medication (over-the-counter and prescription), lifestyle changes, complementary medicine, and therapy.

Lifestyle Changes

Making lifestyle changes, for example, can make a huge difference in how you feel each day, as well as the extent and severity of your illness and symptoms. This can be as drastic as changing jobs to better accommodate your illness or as simple as pacing activities so you can "push through" on good days and rest on bad days. Some other lifestyle changes to consider:

  • Journaling: Writing down your symptoms (physical and mental) can help you better track your illness so you can better prepare for the ups and downs. Journaling is also a great way to get a handle on any emotions that may be interfering with feeling your best.
  • Diet and exercise: Of course, what you eat and how much you exercise will depend on the type of chronic illness you're coping with. That said, working with your healthcare team to create a quality diet and consistent exercise plan for you can help your body and mind function at its best.
  • Sleep: A good night's rest is crucial for managing pain, depression, stress, and more. If you begin having trouble sleeping, the worry and stress of living with a chronic illness may be to blame. Try writing down your worries before bed, creating a relaxing nighttime ritual (like a warm bath or mediation), and be mindful of proper sleep hygiene (keep your bedroom cool and electronic-free, and avoid alcohol, caffeine, and heavy exercise too close to shut-eye).
  • Breathing and mindfulness: Paying attention to something as simple as your breath (inhaling and exhaling deeply) can be a go-to technique for staying in the moment and keeping yourself calm when you get overwhelmed by your illness. This is one example of mindfulness, or the practice of observing your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in a non-judgmental way, which can be done anytime, anywhere.

Medical Marijuana

Marijuana is increasingly being prescribed to treat a variety of chronic illnesses. In fact advocates cite dozens of symptoms ranging from pain to depression to panic attacks that can be treated and managed with medical marijuana. Research is mostly anecdotal in nature, however, so your best bet is to talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of using medical marijuana for your specific condition.

Antidepressants/Anti-Anxiety Medication

Many people with chronic illness become clinically depressed or suffer from co-occurring anxiety as a result of the symptoms and lifestyle changes that come with chronic illness. In most cases, the disease itself does not cause these mental health issues. In this case, treatment may include a prescription antidepressant (SSRI/SNRIs or tricyclic agents) or anti-anxiety medication (Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam).

Psychotherapy

Many find therapy helpful in addressing how health-imposed changes to your life impact you mentally and physically. This may include individual, group, couples, or family therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, can help address both psychological and physiological conditions.

CBT can help you to change any thoughts, actions, or behaviors that may be worsening your symptoms.

Other types of therapy for chronic illness may include behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy.

Alternative Therapy

Many people with chronic illness turn to alternative and holistic therapies along with their conventional treatment methods to help better manage their daily symptoms and improve their overall physical and mental functioning. Again, what works for you will depend on your specific illness and symptoms, so it's best to consult your medical provider about what's safe to try. Some common alternative therapies include:

Coping

Coping with a chronic illness means coping with the physical and mental tool. You may be dealing with invisible symptoms like pain, fatigue, depression, and stress. Plus, your illness may be impacting your home, work, social, and financial life—which can cause anxiety and uncertainty about what lies ahead. Some tips to cope with chronic illness include:

Manage Stress

If left unmanaged, stress can make it even harder to deal with the day-to-day living of a chronic illness. Learning to recognize the signs is a great first step in managing your stress. Some common ones:

  • Anxiety
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Relationship issues
  • Sadness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Trouble concentration

Seek Counseling

If you're experiencing the above symptoms, consider talking to a mental health professional who has training in coping with chronic illness. Ask your physician for a referral. Individual or group therapy can help you sort through the frustration, anxiety, and many other emotions you may be experiencing. By sharing your personal experiences, you can begin to regain control and better cope with the impact chronic illness is having on your daily life.

Find Support

Perhaps the most valuable part of a support group (in-person or online) is talking to others who feel just like you. A support group is a great place to vent frustrations, share ideas, and swap coping strategies. Just knowing that you’re not alone can give you the motivation to stay positive and stay the course. 

For Caregivers

Chronic illness can impact the entire family, especially if you’re the sole caregiver. Taking time out to care for yourself isn’t selfish, but a priority and perhaps the best thing you can do for you loved one. After all, if you’re not physically and mentally healthy and strong, you won’t have the energy to give your all.

  • Keep learning: Do your best to stay informed about your loved one's condition, including symptoms and treatment side effects. This will help you know what to expect. Ask your doctor for some recommendations of reliable resources for information and support. 
  • Prioritize self-care: This includes getting enough sleep, eating a quality diet, exercising, making time for hobbies, finding alone time, and practicing relaxation strategies. If you’re having a hard time managing stress and feel fatigued and burnt out, don’t be afraid to seek help from a mental health professional. 
  • Stay connected: Whether you find a local or online support group or just set a weekly date with a trusted friend, staying socially connected can help you feel less isolated and give you a much-deserved break from your role as caregiver. 
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