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  • Writer's pictureShabnam Jheengoor

Here is why looking after your emotional health matters when you are chronically ill.

You cannot gain control over chronic illness and pain by focusing only on the physical factors. You must give equal attention to the psychological factors too.

If strict diets, medication, surgery, exercise, natural medicine have not helped much, it is time to look inwards and understand what is amplifying the illness/pain in the body.

Imagine a bicycle with only a front wheel

or a bicycle with only the back wheel.

How far will it get?

Logic dictates that the bicycle must have both wheels in working order for it to get anywhere! The same applies to managing pain/illness.

It is not enough that you spend resources on the physical aspects (managing symptoms through different medications, surgery, diets, exercise...). It is equally important that you look inwards to your emotional well-being.

Give equal importance to your internal emotional self rather than focusing only on your physical self.

Why does looking after your emotional health matter?

When we live with a chronic health condition, life can become consumed by all that is required to manage the condition;

- chasing medical appointments, results & prescriptions,

- hours and days spent in hospital and doctor’s office,

- researching the condition & self-advocating

- juggling the multitude of limitations that illness imposes (juggling childcare, work, illness & relationships).

Living with illness can become a constant struggle where you are left with no time or the mental space to wonder how all these have affected your emotional well-being. Oftentimes, we give attention to the emotional self only when we are completely burnout, stressed, and crippled by anxiety. However, here is the tricky part that we often fail to reflect on.

This toxic emotional sludge can amplify the illness symptoms that we experience.

There are at least two related pathways through which this emotional sludge can make illness and pain worse: the direct neuroscience pathway and the indirect psychosocial pathway.

The direct neuroscience pathway

If you suffer from chronic pain, anxiety and other distressing emotions are more likely to increase your pain compared to someone who has an episode of acute pain. One reason behind this is the various changes in brain structures & neurotransmitters that happen when pain is persistent. Managing your anxiety is KEY to decreasing the frequency, severity & duration of pain flares.

The link between pain and distressing emotional states is extremely complex. Research has only begun to uncover these intricate links but it's being shown that learning to manage distressing emotions is a critical part of living well with chronic pain and reducing pain.

Whenever we undergo a challenging situation where we feel powerless and threatened (which is common when one has chronic illness/pain), the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Leading to the release of various neurotransmitters and hormones (adrenaline, cortisol etc). These hormones affect the functioning of the whole body: heart rate, breathing rate & muscle tension increases. Such persistent hormonal surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol contributes to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain.

Thus, there is a direct pathway through which experiencing persistent episodes of distressing emotions can impact your health and amplify your illness symptoms.

The indirect psychosocial pathway

When we are trapped by anxiety and other distressing emotions, it becomes difficult to engage in meaningful actions to bring joy and success in your life.

Consider this example. One of my coachees, J. suffered from severe chronic pain. Over the past year, she had lost weight and looked pale. She also lived with fatigue and felt constantly cold.

Due to these health issues, she dressed in oversized clothes (to hide her thinness) when going out as well as layered on clothes to keep warm. This made her feel self-conscious and sometimes attracted questions. Thus, she felt reluctant to leave the house. She stopped exercising (going for walks in nature) and going out to meet friends and family.

She experienced serious anxiety when thinking of leaving the home worrying about the reactions of others or what others may be thinking about her, This withdrawal from life, contributed to increasing pain and symptoms. Anxiety kept her trapped in her mind and in the house and she started feeling sicker and sicker and weaker and weaker every day.

It was not illness per se that was keeping her in the house, but rather the worry she experienced over the negative reactions/judgements of others!

Learning to cope with anxious feelings and thoughts gave her the courage to re-evaluate her life and she decided that she will not allow anxiety to dictate what she does anymore.

She started leaving the house, went out for walks everyday, meeting friends and re-launched her business part-time.

In this way, illness no longer kept her house-bound and fearful. She started feeling more confident in handling her health condition. The progressive deterioration that she was experiencing due to lack of exercise and movement was halted.

Will looking after your emotional health cure your illness?

No. Learning the skills to enhance your emotional health will not cure your illness.


  1. the burden of illness/disability will be reduced

  2. pain levels and illness symptoms will stabilize to a certain extent. (less likelihood of unexpected flares).

  3. you will feel more confident making plans since flares will be more controlled.

  4. you will experience greater mobility and daily functioning

The benefits are endless.

With compassion,

Shabnam Rakhiba

Life Coach supporting women with chronic illness live their best life.

Are you a woman living with chronic illness/pain and struggling with anxiety?

Join me in the upcoming pay-what-you-can workshop to enhance your emotional coping skills. I will be sharing a few simple techniques with you to help you look at anxiety and distressing emotions in a different way.

We will be looking at anxiety holistically and taking a body-mind approach. I will introduce two grounding techniques and one structured journaling technique.

Time/date: Zoom, Friday 3rd Feb, 7pm gmt, 2 pm est.

Register before 31st Jan for pay-what-you-can option, £29 after 31st Jan.

Read more about anxiety and the skills you need to cope with it:

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