Lana Barhum is a legal assistant, patient advocate, freelance writer, blogger, and single parent. She has lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008 and uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness.

No one told me that chronic illness, at times, would be a lonely experience. I had to learn on my own how vital it was to stay connected and pick a support system that would be helpful to me as I lived with the effects of my chronic illnesses.

The importance of a support system

Researchers have found that people who have support systems are 50% less likely to die from chronic illness compared to those who do not. This is because support of family and friends plays an essential part in the ability to make healthy and proactive choices. Moreover, the presence of loved ones can actually help to reduce the symptoms chronically ill people experience.

5 Things I Learned About Having A Support System

1) Acknowledge that you need support

I have learned that I have two choices: either suffer alone or ask for help. It is my responsibility to communicate my needs. Family and friends are a key component of my support system because they offer help on my low energy days and comfort me when I need love and support. Sometimes, it is hard to ask for and accept help because I worry I may be bothering or burdening them. But I have learned to take into account that my family and friends genuinely want to help and that I can provide similar help and support when I am able.

It's important to acknowledge that you need the help and support of loved ones. Don’t forget to reach out of your social circle to others dealing with similar diseases and ask them how they manage and cope successfully.

2) Draw strength from your faith or spiritual side

I know that strength comes from many different places. I have turned to my faith for purpose and comfort, =-02q 07 and it has helped to understand that being chronically ill isn’t the universe’s way of picking me to suffer. Chronic illness and pain have nothing against me specifically. My faith has given me the strength to escape a negative mindset and to cope successfully.

Spirituality can refer to your religious beliefs and/or life philosophies. Spirituality can help you understand the things that life throws your way with heart disease. Choose to explore your spiritual side through prayer, meditation and reading life-affirming materials.

3) Seek professional help, when and if necessary

I have learned that it is important for me to acknowledge that chronic illness can have an emotional effect on me. There have been times when I have struggled with sadness, anger, and worry about facing the future with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Individual counseling helped me figure out how to live my life as fully and as actively as possible. In the end, I am stronger and better for seeking out help when I couldn’t do it alone. If your chronic illness affects your emotional well-being, seek counseling.

Therapy can help you and your loved ones adjust to the demands of a life altering and debilitating illness. The emotional effects of heart disease and other chronic illnesses are nothing to be ashamed of. If you feel overwhelmed and start to experience symptoms of depression, don’t try to convince yourself that you can just will those feelings away. Do yourself and your loved ones a favor and get the help you need and deserve.

4) Prioritize yourself and your health needs

I have learned to appreciate the days where I feel healthy and on top of my game, and I have learned to make those days count. While I would like to put the needs of others ahead of my own, I often have to remind myself that I am no help to myself or my loved ones if I choose to sacrifice my health.

Putting your needs ahead of loved ones, including children, parents or a spouse, is tough but necessary. It is important to acknowledge that while your family needs you, they also need you to be healthy, strong, and around for a long time.

5) Support is a two-way street

Having strong relationships with family members and friends has meant ongoing support. I appreciate having these people in my life, and I go out of my way to help them when I am physically and emotionally able.

Any successful relationship requires a two-way effort. The better friend you are, the better your friends will be. Therefore, if you want friends to stay in touch, you need to stay in touch. You also need to be a good listener and avoid jealousy in friendships and relationships. Last of all, appreciate loved ones that offer genuine concern and affection.

What to do when support is lacking

Nothing hurts more than having people, especially loved ones, dismiss your symptoms and pain and treat you with skepticism or resentment. In this case, it helps to expand your support system. Support groups—online and in your local community—can be a good place to vent, get emotional support, and talk about the difficulties of living with heart disease. Some even offer information on new research, treatments, and getting well. Whatever your needs are, do what works for you, and don’t be afraid to switch groups or leave a group if it isn’t the right fit for you.

If the lack of support becomes more than you can handle and affects your daily life, talk to a mental health professional. With the help of a therapist or psychologist, you can learn to manage your emotions and overcome grief and pain despite a lack of support.

To learn more about heart disease:

Natural Choices for Keeping Heart Disease at Bay
If I Have Heart Disease, Can I Still Work Out?
5 Deadliest Foods Linked to Heart Disease