Bridget Dibb, Ph.D.

Coping with Chronic Illness

Living with Chronic Illness

An explanation of how we recover from and live with illness

Posted Aug 05, 2019

Humans have an incredible ability to respond and recover from adverse situations. How is it that most of us, with sometimes life-changing conditions, manage to live so well?  And due to medical advances, more and more of us are living with chronic illness into old age.

My research focuses on how we adjust to and cope with living with illness. These illnesses make simple and everyday events deeply challenging. Some challenges involve the illness itself, for example, painful symptoms, while other challenges may lie with treatment, medication, and rehabilitation. Despite these obstacles, most of us adjust well and manage the problems we face.

Most people living with illness seek to cope and manage as best they can. Faced with diverse circumstances we often rise to the challenge and seek out ways of coping. Psychological theorists who specialize in understanding how we cope with adversity have proposed psychological processes that occur when experiencing trauma. For example, the Cognitive Adaptation Theory (Taylor, 1983) proposes that we respond psychologically in three ways when adjusting to the situation.

Finding Meaning

We find meaning by seeking an explanation for why this happened to us. In fact ‘why me?’ may be a frequent question when first digesting the news about a diagnosis. Believing we know the cause of the illness, even if this belief isn’t accurate, has been found to be important in understanding why it has happened.   People have been found to have an explanation for their illness even when, medically, there is no known cause.  Answering these questions serves the purpose of giving meaning to our new situation and helping with adjusting to living with the illness.  

Amazingly we also may start to find silver linings to the new situation. These can take the form of finding inner strength, a new appreciation for life, or deeper relationships. Some years ago, I met a young man with a spinal cord injury, who will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He told me that, even if he had a magic wand he wouldn’t change things, because he saw himself as a better person now and he liked who he had become. It is truly remarkable how some of us respond to adversity. 

Regaining Control

The second response that we may engage in is to seek greater control over our lives. This stems from the loss of control we realize the scale of the changes we are likely to experience as a result of the illness' effect. Regaining control is important in many illnesses.  Seeking information about the illness and treatment and finding ways to cope with the illness are examples of regaining control. 

It Could Be Worse

The third response focuses on engaging in thoughts and activities that help us to feel better about ourselves. For example, knowing or imagining that things could be worse and that there are people worse-off can lead to positive feelings, such as gratitude. There is always a worse situation to be imagined.  Comments such as “I’m lucky, I don’t have it that bad…” are indicators that these thought processes are happening. 

Adjusting Well

These responses are all positive and are associated with recovering well. They are all the more amazing when we remember there are those who simultaneously manage multiple conditions with varying complications and treatments.  Those diagnosed with a chronic illness can take comfort should they recognize these thought processes in themselves as they indicate they are adjusting positively.  The human being really is amazing.


Taylor S.E. (1983). Adjustment to Threatening Events: A Theory of Cognitive Adaptation. American Psychologist 38: 1161–1173.