Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Coping with a Chronic Illness Diagnosis

Resilience and emotional awareness in chronic disease

Key points

  • Diagnosis of a chronic illness is often accompanied by grief.
  • Building self awareness cfreates greater opportunity for healing.
  • Use resilience and emotional self awareness to allow for healing.
Fizkes/Adobe, Used with Permission
Close up mature woman taking out pills from bottle
Source: Fizkes/Adobe, Used with Permission

No one wants to hear bad news, especially regarding their health. It seems that receiving a devastating diagnosis is a great fear of many. Unfortunately, it may happen in your or a loved one's lifetime, and with that experience come all sorts of emotions. Fear, shame, guilt, and even anger are among the feelings associated with a difficult diagnosis.

It may not be the diagnosis itself but the implications of the diagnosis that can generate massive anxiety, fear, or nervousness. Uncertainty surrounding possible treatments involved in managing or treating the condition is common. Questions about possible side effects or ability to endure treatment are all sources of stress.

People may feel a sense of failure after hearing news of a debilitating diagnosis. Thoughts of what one could have done or should have done or what could have been done differently can be almost unrelenting. However natural emotional such reactions are, they do not bring anyone much closer to relief.

Throughout my career, I have had the unfortunate task of delivering difficult news and confirming information that other providers have delivered. Unfortunately, whether it's the first, second, or third opinion, the news does not become any easier to hear or process.

Coping emotionally with a severe diagnosis is just as important as participating in physical treatments associated with a disease. A person can first be in denial, the first step of the grieving process. The shock of an unexpected diagnosis and the implications are almost too much to bear mentally. Depending on the disease state, the provider may be moving faster than a patient can process at once.

 fizkes/adobe, used with permission
Grey haired man touching chest, having heart attack, woman supporting
Source: fizkes/adobe, used with permission

Coping is an aspect of treatment, necessary for the person to be able to move forward with their health. Research shows that the ability to cope with a diagnosis is paramount in treatment and recovery. The emotional and mental distress from a lnabiity to cope has been shown to interfere with treatment protocols: Patients choose to disengage instead of facing their diagnosis and building resilience in the face of adversity.

Resilience is a positive adaptation in the face of a stressful experience. Through resilience, a person rises above the difficult experience and chooses to persevere. A resilient person can adapt to change and have the ability to return to a previous healthy mental, emotional, as well as physical condition after a trauma, tragedy, or illness.

Resilient individuals are also optimistic, focus on personal strengths, and are emotionally conscious. As a result, they have a sense of well-being and productivity in life regardless of the implications of chronic disease. It is also believed that anyone can strengthen their resilience, even if they already possess resilience in the face of adversity. By so doing they can contribute to the advancement of health, ease the impact of illness, and even accelerate and facilitate the healing process.

Connection with faith or spirituality also plays a significant role in a person's ability to cope, especially in the face of a diagnosis of terminal illness. Palliative care teams employ integrative healthcare practitioners to help facilitate the patient's personal growth, psychological resilience, and coping mechanisms. Integrative healthcare practitioners provide a series of tools such as massage, acupuncture, meditation, breath work, and more, to foster a sense of well-being. Many of these modalities are used to reduce symptoms in palliative care, such as nausea, pain, depression. In addition, such treatments can provide a sense of profound relief and peace.

Receiving news of a chronic illness diagnosis is never pleasant; however, with a bit of resilience and emotional self-awareness, combined with an integrative healthcare team, it is possible to not only cope with the condition but also create peace and thrive. Allowing oneself to accept the news is the first step. Even if you cannot fully accept the diagnosis or treatment implications, processing the array of emotions associated associated with the news is key to healing. The more a person is willing to be resilient and self-aware, the sooner they can find a sense of peace and calm in their healing journey.


Babić R, Babić M, Rastović P, Ćurlin M, Šimić J, Mandić K, Pavlović K. Resilience in Health and Illness. Psychiatr Danub. 2020 Sep;32(Suppl 2):226-232. PMID: 32970640.

Compas BE, Jaser SS, Dunn MJ, Rodriguez EM. Coping with chronic illness in childhood and adolescence. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2012;8:455-80. doi: 10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032511-143108. Epub 2011 Dec 20. PMID: 22224836; PMCID: PMC3319320.

Steinhorn DM, Din J, Johnson A. Healing, spirituality and integrative medicine. Ann Palliat Med. 2017 Jul;6(3):237-247. doi: 10.21037/apm.2017.05.01. Epub 2017 May 22. PMID: 28595441.

More from Psychology Today

More from Erica Steele DNM, ND, CFMP, BCND, MPH

More from Psychology Today