Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Sharon described herself as in a “state of shock” when her physician gave her the news of her diagnosis. While she hadn’t been feeling well lately, she assumed she had the symptoms of an illness that would be easily treated. That she would be living with a chronic condition for the rest of her life was the furthest thing from her mind.
Sure, her doctor told her that with the help of medication and adherence to lifestyle changes, she would be able to live a normal life. But her doctor’s description of what she would need to do to stay healthy felt overwhelming.
Sharon’s doctor gave her some printed information, along with the URLs of websites she thought Sharon might benefit from. But by that point, Sharon wasn’t able to take in anything else.
Making important decisions
At some point in the discussion, Sharon’s physician said, “Sharon, we have a few options regarding treatment. I want to go through each of the options with you, the pros and cons, and what this will mean for you in terms of your responsibilities.”
Before her physician could begin discussing the options, Sharon held her hand up. “I totally trust you. Please just choose the option that you think is best and tell me what I need to do.”
Sharon told herself that by asking her physician to make this decision, she was showing that she respected and trusted her physician’s judgment. While that might indeed be true, Sharon’s reaction also had a potential downside.
Understanding the drawbacks
By refusing to be involved in determining her own regimen, Sharon was also missing out on the option to have a voice in her destiny. One treatment option might fit her lifestyle better than another. More important, Sharon was rejecting the opportunity to be an equal partner with her physician in her treatment. In choosing this more passive role, Sharon was disempowering herself. She had given in to the fear factor.
Sharon’s decision to leave treatment in her physician’s hands also made her doctor’s role more difficult. She would have to make an educated guess at which treatment option might be best for Sharon, with the possibility that Sharon would find it too difficult to follow, leaving her health at risk. And if Sharon was already this unwilling to take an active role in her healthcare, would she also not keep her doctor informed along the way?
Here’s what Sharon’s doctor said to her: “Sharon, I appreciate your trust. But what would really help is for you to team up with me so that we can work together in managing your chronic condition. Let’s talk about how we can make that happen.”
Getting more involved
What about you? If you have recently been diagnosed, you might also remember having had some initial resistance to getting involved in making decisions about your treatment. This might have changed over time, as you worked through your emotional reaction to your diagnosis. Or you might still feel like you would rather let your doctor make all the important decisions.
And if you have been living with a chronic condition for a period of time, you still may have those moments when you just want to let your physician take charge. Like when you need to make another change to your regimen.
Either way, here are some ideas to consider:
First, let go of self-judgment. When Sharon’s doctor brought up her concerns about Sharon’s lack of involvement, Sharon initially felt ashamed. She felt like her doctor was calling her out. “I guess my doctor thinks I’m a wimp,” she said to herself. But that wasn’t her doctor’s intention, not at all. It’s only human to feel overwhelmed by news of a chronic condition. And it’s only human to want someone more knowledgeable to step in and make things better. You’re dealing with a lot. Show yourself some compassion by turning off that voice of criticism.
Don’t underestimate the role of your emotions. News of a chronic condition brings up all kinds of emotions. Most likely, initial shock followed by feelings like fear, anger, and sadness. When you’re overwhelmed by feelings, it’s hard to consider any information that might be presented to you and pretty much impossible to make decisions. Again, if your emotions have made it hard to discuss treatment options, you’re normal.
Your first instinct may not be what’s best for you.
Give yourself time to adjust to your diagnosis. Emotions will come and go. What’s important is to allow yourself to feel how you feel, and to talk about how you feel. That’s how you’ll come to the place of being able to look at the facts around your diagnosis, and participate more fully in your own treatment. In other words, be patient with yourself. You’re doing the best you can during a difficult time in your life.
Get educated, but at your own pace. Learning about your chronic condition may feel like the last thing you want to do. It’s a lot of information to try to digest and make sense of. And much of the information you encounter could be scary. So take your time. You might want to begin with the resources that your doctor provides you with or suggests and then branch out from there. Step by step. I always recommend to my clients that they flood the fear with facts. The more you know about what you’re dealing with, the more competent and confident you’ll feel. Why? Because you’ll know what you need to do to take the best possible care of yourself. Knowledge is power.
Build a relationship with your doctor. Sharon’s doctor asked her to team up with her. The doctor’s intention was to present an opportunity to Sharon, not to criticize her. Once Sharon realized this, she was able to take steps to become an effective team member. Sharon not only did her research, she asked questions. And she made suggestions. This is the essence of teaming up with your doctor. As the saying goes, two heads are better than one.
Consider your treatment a work in progress. While you might initially want to leave the treatment decisions to your physician, you may very well want to get more involved over time. You may find that the initial treatment regimen is not as effective as you and your doctor need it to be, or that it causes you discomfort, or interferes too much with your day-to-day routine. You may also find some other options in your own research. Most likely, your treatment regimen can be revised over time to better fit your own uniqueness. Having an ongoing dialogue with your doctor will help to ensure that your treatment evolves to be more suitable and beneficial to you.
Embrace the value of being your own advocate. When you appoint yourself an active participant in your healthcare, you essentially announce to the world that you are facing life on life’s terms. That you are willing and able to do what it takes to manage your chronic condition. In an active, not passive, role. The result is a sense of optimism, and mastery. Along with a boost to your emotional wellness, which, in turn, can also benefit your physical wellness. This is a cycle you want to get started in your life. And most likely, your doctor wants you to as well.
You and your doctor. Just treat me? No, that’s not good enough for you. Be patient with yourself. At your own pace, take steps toward teaming up with your doctor. Get active. After all, it’s your health.
What helps you to take an active role in your healthcare? Share your advice by commenting below.