For nearly one out of every three Americans, chronic illness and/or pain is a way 1 of life. Despite medical care, symptoms, such as arthritis pain, headache, back pain or serious fatigue, persist—often making sufferers miserable on a regular basis.

But why do some people become devastated by their health problems, while others lead full and satisfying lives despite them? It's never easy to live with a chronic ailment, but the degree to which it impacts your life is largely within your control. Secrets to living better—despite illness…

Shift Your Focus

Research shows that focusing on pain only makes it worse.

Important finding: Researchers divided people who had just had a tooth pulled into two groups-one group was told to rate their pain every 20 minutes, while the other group rated it only after two hours. Those who had been observing their pain regularly felt significantly more pain at the two-hour mark than those who had not.

Helpful: If you have a chronic health problem, carry a notebook and record each time you think about your symptom (you may be surprised how often this is)...what those thoughts are...and what you are doing.

After seven days, review the notebook. What were you typically doing when you frequently thought about your health problem? When you thought about it less often? The goal is to increase the amount of time you spend in activities that lead your focus away from the symptom. For example, if you don't think about your health problem when you spend time with friends, work in your garden or listen to music, schedule more time for such distractions.

Once you've determined the most effective distractions, do these activities for a while.

Then try this exercise: Focus intently on your symptom for five minutes and rate its severity on a scale of one to five. Then use a distraction (examples described above) for three to five minutes and rate your pain again. Keep track of the distractions that work best and incorporate them into your life.

Rethink Your Symptoms

Changing how you think about your ailment is key to minimizing its impact on your life. Distress is often caused less by the symptoms themselves than your worry about them.

Example: If you have worrisome, alarming thoughts about the symptoms of your illness or chronic condition, those thoughts can make your symptoms feel much worse. Helpful...

  • Recognize negative thoughts.

You may think: "Now, besides my headache, I have ringing in my cars...I must have a brain tumor." These thoughts are bound to make your breathing shallow your heart race and your muscles tense-all of which worsen the pain.

  • Replace catastrophic thoughts. "I feel uncomfortable today, but these symptoms have occurred before. I still can work or run errands despite my headache. And tomorrow I'll probably feel a lot better."
  • Remember that minor symptoms come and go. When you have a new, unexplained pain or discomfort elsewhere in your body, remind yourself that the vast majority of such symptoms get better by themselves.

Important: Tell your doctor about any new symptoms that concern you.

Stop Destructive Behaviors

Common mistakes to avoid…

  • Constantly examining yourself. Paying excessive attention to a medical problem will only make it feel worse. Prodding a lump or lesion repeatedly, for example, is likely to make it sore, increasing anxiety.

Solution: Ask your doctor how often you should be checking yourself.

  • Obsessively researching your problem. Researching symptoms in a quest for reassurance or new answers usually adds to anxiety instead of reducing it-and certainly takes time away from more rewarding activities, such as hobbies or spending time with family.

Solution: Schedule an hour in the evening to do research in medical books or on-line. When you are able, gradually postpone the session. This will help you develop the ability to better control your anxiety. Then taper off the research time over the following weeks and months until the information you're gathering no longer amplifies your worries.

  • Giving up the things you love. Chronic pain or fatigue leads many people to cut back on physical activities. But while acute pain is a signal that damage may be occurring, chronic pain may not necessarily be. In fact, inactivity usually weakens muscles and stiffens joints. The less you do, the less you'll feel like doing.

Solution: If there is something that you once enjoyed but have stopped due to your health problem, check with your doctor to see whether the activity is truly risky. If not, gradually add the activity back into your life.

Example: If you've given up golfing, start by taking out your old clubs and polishing them up. The next day, take a few practice swings outdoors. Over a period of weeks, get out to the driving range and then to the golf course.

Adjust Your Attitudes

Your beliefs and attitudes can either magnify or minimize the impact of your physical problem. Thoughts to watch out for…

  • Why is this happening to me? Feeling that you've been singled out for misfortune often transforms ordinary pain into misery. In reality, you're not alone-everyone gets sick at some point in his life. For help putting your troubles in perspective, consider joining a support group for people who have a similar ailment. Large hospitals and academic medical centers often sponsor such groups.
  • Good health is everything. People who cope best with chronic symptoms understand that health is indeed precious—but it can't replace love, fulfillment, self-respect and wisdom. Health problems may make it more difficult to attain the things that make life most worth living—but usually such obstacles can be overcome.

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