Opinion: we can learn from those who have long term illness how to find coping mechanisms and ways to help us deal with the pandemic
Have you ever met someone who has been through a lot? This can be anything: death, grief, pain, hurt or illness. Think of someone battling illness or dealing with a long term health condition. I myself have Cystic Fibrosis (CF), a life threatening, chronic condition which affects the lungs and the digestive system. I usually don't tell many people, as I don't want anyone to see me differently or feel sorry for me. My condition is not me, I am a lot more and I am well, thankfully. I have often heard the words "you are so brave", which is lovely, but I don’t feel that I am brave. I think that I am resilient, and I think that we all have this ability, if faced with a similar situation. As humans, we have a great ability to adapt.
Living with CF is normal for me. It is not scary (well most of the time!). I was diagnosed at six weeks old, so it is and always has been my life and is nothing new. However, I am thankful in some ways for it, because it has taught me some tough lessons along the way and that is what I want to tell you about.
With fear and anxiety, sometimes the only cure is exposure to the worst. Not that it is wanted, but it can definitely make us stronger. There is a theory in psychology called post traumatic growth which describes this kind of transformation, and was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s. It explains how people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward. "People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life," says Tedeschi.
This pandemic has opened all of our eyes to what people who live with illness see
To evaluate whether and to what extent someone has achieved growth after a trauma, psychologists use a variety of self-report measures including the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory. It looks for positive responses in five areas; appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength and spiritual change.
In a research study, I asked 122 participants from all over the world to determine how they cope with living with CF. Published in the Journal of Psychology, Health and Medicine, the study aimed to examine which specific coping styles were associated with quality of life in a CF sample and found that greater use of religion, problem solving and acceptance was positively associated with a better quality of life or people with CF.
The findings showed how individuals with a long term illness can find coping mechanisms and ways that work to adapt to their situation. Acceptance has a huge role in relieving the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Active coping, where a person in works to control a stressor through appropriately targeted behaviour, embracing responsibility for resolving the situation using one's available internal resources was also associated with better quality of life.
RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on how to mind your mental health during the lockdown
This pandemic has opened all of our eyes to what people who live with illness see. Life is fragile and it can be gone in an instant so we should not take it for granted. We should explore what we can learn from the bad and focus on the good. This can be terrifying, but only if you let it be. It can be positive. It can allow you to see what you have had all along, what you should focus your time on from now on, and what you need to appreciate more. I think I am so positive because I have seen first hand how quickly things can change, and because of how grateful I am to be here, to be well and helping others in my work. I can honestly say that I fully appreciate every day of my life, and it has given me great peace to feel this way.
I am beginning to feel that people with CF might have a slight advantage when it comes to coping with a pandemic. The strict rules around respiratory hygiene and hand washing is second nature to someone with a weak immune system. One ordinary flu can kill someone who has CF, and now everyone has felt the terror of this.
I hope that we take more care for our own health, and continue these practices after the Covid-19 situation. I hope we are more aware of the vulnerable, and we dispel the workplace culture to "soldier on" at work when we are sick, and we stay home to protect those with underlying conditions. I hope that we stay home to rest when we need to ourselves. I hope we don’t cancel as many plans. I hope we are more open to chasing our goals. I hope that we develop more empathy, and are more considerate of other’s needs.
Most of all, I hope we grow. We are being given a huge opportunity: a wake up call. Use it for the benefit of future generations. Sometimes we have to break to heal, to overcome, and to be better. I hope that is what we bring forward into our lives when we return to "normal". What part of normal to you want to return to?
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ