‘How Are You Feeling?’: Chronic Illness and Coping with Questions

Shot of partner comforting partner who isn't feeling wellIt is a simple question, but one that can cause more inner turmoil than most of us realize.

“How are you feeling?”

For countless people living with a longer-term or chronic illness, that seemingly innocent question can be loaded with emotions.

As a psychotherapist specializing in living with chronic conditions, I hear countless people wonder aloud if people really want the truth. Or they worry that the truth, some variation of “not so good,” will be followed by awkward silence or unwanted advice.

Part of the issue can also be that when you do not feel well, the people who love you are not “okay.” In that sense, if you are the one struggling with a condition, then you are also in the position of providing reassurance to loved ones that you are okay and therefore they are too.

These kinds of stressors are not helpful.

Many people with health conditions would rather scrap the topic altogether, so they grit their teeth into a forced smile and say, “I feel good! Fine!” Then everyone can get on to a different topic.

If you are living with a chronic condition, how do you respond to people who ask how you are feeling?

One of the most important things you can learn when you are experiencing a chronic condition is how to communicate about it. Deciding on a couple of go-to tools, phrases, and responses to questions can go a long way to helping you manage your stress around the condition.

1. When people ask how you are feeling, offer up a number on a scale of 1 to 10.

For instance, you can say, “Today I’m a 4. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.” And leave it at that.

In doing this, you are letting people know you are not feeling great, which can be helpful information for them. It also protects you from having to divulge specific symptoms.

2. Draw clear boundaries around how much information you will give ahead of time.

If it is someone with whom you are in regular contact, you can let them know of some general symptoms you experience such as pain, fatigue, headaches, etc. But you can decide you are not going to discuss particulars.

Having the conversation sooner rather than later, and preferably at a time when you are feeling relatively okay, will go a long way to fending off a tendency to respond in an aggressive or possibly hurtful way when you are having symptoms.

3. Cut unwanted advice off at the pass.

When you are experiencing a persistent condition, you will inevitably encounter people who know someone (who knew someone) who had just what you have, and they will know exactly what you should do.

Listen carefully for the beginnings of advice coming your way, and if it is not something you are interested in, kindly let that person know with some variation of, “Thank you for the idea, but I’ve got all the help I need right now.”

After all, people just want to help. And the truth is, if you don’t feel well, others may feel uncomfortable too, and they may feel compelled to help you “fix” it.

Of course, some people will be interested in hearing any kind of new ideas to try. But what I hear most often from the people I work with is they are already engaged with physicians, specialists, and very likely some integrative or complementary practitioners. They don’t want any more advice.

Listen carefully for the beginnings of advice coming your way, and if it is not something you are interested in, kindly let that person know with some variation of, “Thank you for the idea, but I’ve got all the help I need right now.” If they continue with their advice, just repeat.

4. Ask for you what you need, and be clear about what you do not need.

This is important for everyone with chronic conditions, and especially necessary when your condition is not visible. The people who care about you are not mind-readers. You may look like you feel great when you are buckling under pain, fear, and discomfort.

Make informing those around you of your needs a priority, especially if you are feeling symptomatic. If you need to, reschedule the dinner party, plan a date night that does not require too much energy, or send the kids to a friend’s house for a few hours.

Maybe you do not need an elaborate meal, a bouquet of flowers, or a great show of affection. Simple whole foods and a bath before bed might be all you require. The trick is to pay attention to your instincts and let those around you in on the plan.

Ask yourself what information you are willing to share and what you are willing to accept. Have some answers to the familiar and often-asked questions ready so you can get on with your day and not get mired in the details.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 8 comments
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  • Sarah

    Sarah

    August 31st, 2017 at 11:02 AM

    So the problem that I have run into is that some people will ask you how you are feeling but it becomes iffy with whether or not they actually want to know. I try to be honest and then I wonder is honesty really what they want to hear or would it just be easier to say I’m fine and go from there. I know that my very close friends will always be there and understand but with just ore casual acquaintances, I am not that willing to share my story because I guess there is a big part of me that feels like they ultimately don’t really want to hear all the gory details. Some days are good some are terrible. You live.

  • Alena

    Alena

    September 4th, 2017 at 9:25 AM

    Thank you for sharing this, Sarah. -Alena

  • KIT

    KIT

    September 2nd, 2017 at 4:07 PM

    There will be some days when I feel like talking about it and then others I simply like to keep it all to myself.

  • Alena

    Alena

    September 4th, 2017 at 9:26 AM

    Right Kit, it’s entirely your decision. -Alena

  • Sean

    Sean

    September 4th, 2017 at 6:16 AM

    Why am I the one who has to draw the boundaries? Shouldn’t the people who are inquiring and being all nosy, shouldn’t they have enough sense to establish some boundaries of their own?

  • Alena

    Alena

    September 4th, 2017 at 5:39 PM

    Thanks Sean, and while that would be great, the truth is you cannot change others’ behavior. We can only alter our own and people will react and respond accordingly. -Alena

  • vaughn

    vaughn

    September 5th, 2017 at 2:43 PM

    I haven’t really thought about this until reading your piece, so thank you for opening my eyes a bit. I guess to me I was asking questions to hopefully show the person that I cared about them and the things that they were having to deal with. I have not thought about how this could be a real drain on someone, how it could be tiring to have everything that was once so interesting and wonderful boiled down to this one singular point about you. You like so many others lose out on who you are and when all people talk about is the illness you have to start to believe that this is the only way that anyone sees you anymore.
    I admit, that would be terribly frustrating for me.

  • Alena

    Alena

    September 5th, 2017 at 5:54 PM

    Vaughn, if there was a “like” button here, I’d press that :) -Alena

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