Five Stages of Accepting an Illness

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Though symptoms of chronic illnesses differ, people with them are united by the denial, anger, fear, hope, and acceptance and other feelings they bring.  Below are the five stages that people typically go through when they find out they have a chronic illness. Not everyone goes through these stages in the same order and it is common to go back and forth between stages as your physical health improves or worsens.

No matter what stage you are in, just accept that this is where you belong, go with it, and feel all the emotions you need to feel in order to move to the next stage. Don't rush this process. Let it happen naturally.

If you believe that you are stuck in one of the first four stages permanently, you may want to consult with a therapist. We all have problems that we need to cope with besides this illness, and they can sometimes prevent this process from occurring naturally.

  1. Denial. Any change or loss in your life is likely to bring denial, and learning that you have a chronic disease can bring large doses of it. Someone in denial may believe a disease can't hurt them. They may ignore their doctors' advice that could help keep the disease under control. In the case of people with diabetes that may mean refusing to take medications or eat a proper diet. On the other hand, some people quickly accept a disease and turn their attention toward healing. These people stay abreast of medical advances and work with doctors to keep the disease in check.
  2. Anger. What often fuels denial is anger--anger that an individual was the "one in 1,000" to get a disease. Anger may also be directed inward, with an individual blaming himself or herself for having the illness. The best way to minimize anger is to find outlets for it. Writing in a journal, attending a support group or meeting with a counselor are constructive ways to express anger. Anger is normal and can take a long time to work through. Sometimes a small part of anger stays with you throughout the entire illness.
  3. Fear. Often underlying anger is the fear that comes with having a disease that can't be cured. People with chronic illnesses may start to view life through a "telephoto lens" instead of a "wide-angle lens". They stop planning ahead or making life changes because they believe they won't be around much longer. Fear is often enhanced when people know little about a disease, so combating it often begins with education. The more a person learns about a disease, the more they feel in control of it. Fear also occurs when you lose faith in your ability to fight and to believe in the plan of the Universe. This is the most important stage to work through. Fear does no good. It only causes toxins in your body that will make you sicker. Believe in the Master Plan and let the fear go as soon as you can. It will come back, but don't let it take over. Tell it that it is a useless feeling and that you are stronger than it is.
  4. Grief. Feelings of grief and loss are common because chronic diseases bring life restrictions that others don't have to face. These may include no longer being able to participate in activities once enjoyed, like eating a favorite meal or playing catch with a grandchild. Grief can cause feelings of inadequacy and lead to withdrawal and isolation. Focusing on activities that remain unaffected by an illness can help people overcome these feelings. Those who refuse to think of themselves as 'sick' will have a more positive outlook. Joining a support group can also help. Groups allow people to meet others with the same disease who are still active and accomplishing goals.
  5. Acceptance. Though managing a long-term illness can bring emotional upheaval, it also brings the triumphant feelings and strength that come with overcoming obstacles. Success comes in a variety of forms, whether it's controlling a disease with positive thinking, biofeedback, or physical therapy so well that less medication is needed or accepting that the illness has irrevocably changed your life and some of it is very, very good. With each success comes the confidence that you're able to live a full, rewarding life and maybe even a more meaningful life than if you hadn't gotten the illness.

If you are interested in learning more about these stages, look up Elizabeth Kubler-Ross at the library or on any search engine. She is the pioneer in studying the stages of grief.