Chronic illness


You may well feel anxious if you have an ongoing illness. The nervousness and fluttering, swirling feelings may be about what this might mean for your future – your health, your ability to earn money, your ability to live independently, your relationships with friends and family. There are lots of things you might be anxious about and none of them are silly.

Different illnesses can have different impacts on different women and what makes you anxious may change at different times in your illness. When you are first diagnosed you may have lots of anxious feelings because the situation is new and there are lots of unknowns. Anxiety levels may also go up and down depending on the treatments available and the progress of your illness.

Is this you?

LEARN Consider the different stories and pictures below, listen to a podcast or check out the video. 

THINK Then, to understand more about what causes anxiety you can explore the different social, psychological and physical things that can increase anxiety. In this section you will find questions to ask yourself about each cause to see if it affects you.

DO Once you have explored the causes of anxiety then it is time to do something. Go to the ‘Toolkit’ to find a range of different tools to help yourself try and reduce anxiety.

View the causes of Anxiety for Chronic illness

Do you relate to these?

I’m sick of being sick all the time. I’m tired of being tired all the time. And I’m tired of being sick of my sicknesses all the time.

I feel like my mind is racing at a million miles an hour… I try to slow down but it just makes me more anxious.

There should be a way you can sleep through an illness. So you climb into bed when you start getting ill, and don’t wake up till you’re better...

Sometimes I just wish that nobody loved me so I could just disappear for a little while. Only a little while though.

It’s getting late and I’m getting emotional and anxious and pathetic again.

Causes of anxiety for Chronic illness

What happens

Some personalities are more prone to anxiety - you might like having control over your world and when you are diagnosed with an illness that sense of control can be taken away from you.

Questions to ask yourself

Is it in my make-up to be anxious?

How much do I like to have control over my life?

Do I get anxious that I might be losing control?

What happens

Frightening or anxious thoughts can cause anxious feelings. It can be a thought that you don’t even notice, but it sets off a cycle of fear. You might have an unhelpful thought such as thinking something bad is about to happen, or you blame yourself when something goes wrong and say “I’m hopeless”. These thoughts are faulty and inaccurate but are difficult to challenge - you start to experience physical symptoms of anxiety such as a racing heart and fast breathing and all you want to do is run away.

Questions to ask yourself

When I feel anxious what are the kinds of thoughts that I can remember having?

Are these thoughts unhelpful or faulty?

For example, do I:

  • have only negative thoughts?
  • jump to the wrong conclusions?
  • use words like “should” or “can't”?
  • think something really bad is about to happen?

What is the evidence to support my thoughts?

What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is this?

What happens

When you have an illness, many people want to help you and tell you about the latest cure or pill they have heard about. You can feel judged for not listening to their advice, or for even having the illness in the first place. You can get anxious people are watching what you do, what you eat, when you exercise – everything becomes public.

Questions to ask yourself

How anxious do I get about what others think of me?

Do I feel judged by people for even having an illness?

What happens

The effect of an illness on your body varies. The symptoms you have can be a reminder your body has changed and may be behaving in ways you don’t like. When you focus on your appearance, these effects can cause you anxious thoughts and feelings.

Questions to ask yourself

How anxious am I about how my body looks?

How anxious am I about the effects my illness is having on my body?

What happens

If you experienced abuse, harm or neglect growing up or violence in your close relationships this can cause you to be vulnerable to anxiety. Any kind of abuse such as emotional, mental or physical can cause you to worry about dangerous or risky situations in different ways than others who have not had these experiences. You may react more strongly to criticism, be anxious that others do not like or value you and that your thoughts or feelings are not important.

Questions to ask yourself

Have I been exposed to violence:

  • as a child?
  • from people close to me?

Have I felt:

  • neglected?
  • threatened?
  • that I might be harmed at any time during my life?

Has maltreatment or violence caused me to be more anxious?

What happens

Having roles that give you meaning are important to your mental and emotional health. You might be a friend, a mother, a grandmother, a partner, a worker… there are many roles you may have in life. Sometimes these roles are given to you and at other times you choose the roles you have. If you feel good about your roles it is easier to cope with any anxiety you may get.

Questions to ask yourself

What roles and sense of purpose do I have?

How anxious am I about the roles I have?

Do I feel good about the roles I have?

Has my illness become my role?

How has my illness affected my role(s)?

Social causes →
What happens

Problems with your family can include lots of things. It might be that your family doesn’t understand your illness or dismisses it as nothing much to get anxious about, or they may be over bearing in their need to watch and protect you. Illness sometimes changes the roles of family members as they become carers, sometimes willingly and sometimes begrudgingly. If you are in a relationship, your illness can impact on this, or if you are not in a relationship you can get anxious your illness will stop you from finding someone to be with.

Questions to ask yourself

Are there family problems that cause me to be stressed and anxious?

Have there been changes to my family that I am anxious about? If so, what are these changes?

What role does my family play in my illness?

How does my illness affect my partner?

Will my illness stop me from having a happy relationship?

What happens

You might be anxious about changes caused by your illness such as a loss of independence, or interruptions to your career or whether you will get the support you need.  

Other life events can create growing anxiety if you have to also cope with a change in your job, separation or divorce or the death of someone you love.

Questions to ask yourself

How do I cope with change?

How anxious am I about losing some of my independence?

Have I experienced any stressful or difficult events recently? If so, what are they?

What happens

Being ill can affect your ability to work, your income and your lifestyle. Your financial situation and whether you have enough medical insurance will influence how anxious you feel. There are often fears about bills piling up and anxiety about whether you will have enough money to get the treatments you want and to look after yourself and your family while you are ill.

Questions to ask yourself

How anxious am I about money?

How anxious am I about being a financial burden to others?

What happens

When you have an illness some friends will know how to cope and support you and others may not know what is helpful for you. You can be anxious about being a burden to your friends too.

Questions to ask yourself

Do I feel accepted by my friends?

Who accepts or does not accept me?

How anxious am I about the effects my illness might have on my friends?

What happens

Having people to talk to when you need support is one of the most important ways to feel good about yourself. This might be friends, family, people in community groups you belong to, or the people you mix with. The people who support you may change or disappear depending on the stage of your illness. Feeling alone and grieving for things you may have lost because of your illness can negatively affect your mental and emotional health. You may start to feel anxious about being left alone.

Questions to ask yourself

Do I have friends, family or people I trust who can be there for me?

Who do I turn to if I need to talk to someone or if I need support?

Have people who I turn to for support moved on, or are they no longer there for me?

Community causes →
What happens

Feeling supported by the services in your community will help you to worry less. Not feeling supported when you have an illness, or struggling to get help, can make you more anxious.

Questions to ask yourself

What services are available to support me in my community?

What happens

When you are ill you can feel more vulnerable to physical and emotional hurt. This might be because you have a wound, pain or physical limitation that means you might fall or be hurt more easily. Your level of energy to deal with emotions may be lower. This may cause you to feel anxious about moving around in your community such as dealing with crowds or transport or shopping.

Questions to ask yourself

How anxious am I about being physically hurt?

How anxious am I about falling over?

How anxious am I that I could be hurt emotionally?

How safe do I feel in my community?

What happens

When you have an illness, you may be anxious about:

  • how safe and secure your job is.
  • whether people will feel you are not pulling your weight.
  • whether you will be overlooked for a promotion or special jobs.
  • how demanding it is of your time and energy to do your job.
Questions to ask yourself

How anxious am I about my work?

How secure do I feel in my job?

Do I feel exhausted by my job?

How supported do I feel by my boss and my work place?

Physical causes →
What happens

There are many physical aspects of your illness which can cause you some anxiety, including:

  • the type of illness you have
  • the symptoms of your illness and how much they affect your life
  • how long you have had symptoms
  • how much pain you are in
  • how long since your diagnosis
  • whether you have a complete diagnosis  
  • whether there was an expectation you would get the illness as you have a family history of it
  • your understanding of the illness
  • the path the illness is likely to take
  • the risk to your life from your illness
Questions to ask yourself

How anxious am I about my illness?

How anxious am I about the future of my illness?

Do I understand enough about my illness?

What happens

The type of treatment you need may include lifestyle changes, medication and/or surgery. If the treatments for your illness are aggressive or if they are likely to impact on the things you are able to do, you are likely to be anxious about this. If you need a particular treatment and you are not able to get it or it creates difficulties and interruptions to your daily life, this can also make you anxious. On top of this, some medications can cause anxiety.

Questions to ask yourself

Is there a treatment for my illness?

How long do I need to receive treatment for my illness?

Is this a short term thing or will I need to receive treatment for the rest of my life?

Am I getting the right type of treatment?

Is my medication likely to cause me anxiety?

What happens

Excessive drinking (defined as more than two standard drinks on any day and with no alcohol free days in a week) can:

  • make you focus more on your anxieties.
  • be a sign you are trying to cover up or numb your feelings of anxiety.
Questions to ask yourself

How much am I drinking?

Do I drink too much?

How anxious am I about the amount of alcohol that I drink?

What happens

Lack of quality sleep can make you tired and this affects your ability to think clearly. Quality sleep can be difficult to achieve when you have an illness - either through pain or the effect your symptoms have on you - or the anxiety about having an illness may keep you awake.

Questions to ask yourself

How much sleep do I get per night?

Is it hard to go to sleep or do I wake in the night and find it hard to go back to sleep?

Does anxiety keep me awake?

What happens

An unhealthy diet made up of high fat and sugary foods affects your mood and can make you more prone to anxiety. Erratic eating such as forgetting to eat or eating only one large meal a day doesn’t help your mood either. If you need a special diet because of your illness this can create added anxieties such as what you can eat when you go out to cafes, restaurants or other people’s homes.

As well as dietary issues, lack of exercise can make you more prone to anxiety.  

Questions to ask yourself

Do I generally eat a range of healthy foods or are there too many fatty or sugary foods in my diet?

Does my illness cause me to get anxious about the foods I can eat?

Do I exercise enough to feel better about myself and my illness?

If possible do I exercise at least 3-4 times per week for more than 30 minutes?

Created on 18/08/2013 | Updated on 10/12/2015
References for this page

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Jean Hailes is Australia’s leading and most trusted women’s health organisation. We believe in physical and emotional health and wellbeing in all its dimensions for all women in Australia throughout their lives.

We offer a range of free resources and easy to understand information on women’s health and wellbeing. Appointments at our specialist women’s health clinics can be made in person (East Melbourne and Clayton, VIC) or across Australia via our Telehealth consultation service.

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