Chronic illness


Lots of worries, both general and very personal, can come up when you have been diagnosed with an ongoing illness. Worries can be about the disruption to your daily life such as taking time off work for sick days and medical appointments. You may hate the feeling of letting someone down. You may worry about your family and how your illness affects them. Or it may be that you worry about your future and the effects your illness may have on things like having a family or your relationship with a partner. Worrying about all of these things is common and to be expected. You are more than likely to also have some personal worries of your own.

Is this you?

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

THINK Then, to understand more about what causes worry you can explore the different social, psychological and physical causes that can increase worry. 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 your worry then it is time to do something. Go to the ‘Toolkit’ to find a range of different tools to help try and reduce worry.

View the causes of Worry for Chronic illness

Do you relate to these?

I need to get back to work so I can pay the bills.

Frustrating questions people ask:

Q: Have you tried holistic options?
A: Many. I’ll bring it back up with my doctor on my next visit, thanks.

Q: Could it be your stress?
A: My opinion is, it is my illness. I’ll bring it up with my doctor though, thanks.

Q: I read in {insert any generic magazine here} about a new medication. Have you heard about it?
A: I was on it when it came out 17 years ago, but I’ll bring it up with my doctor. Thank you.

Q: Have you thought about being in a trial study?
A: I’ll ask my doctor. thanks?

Q: WOW. If I were you, I don’t know what I would do. I might just kill myself.
A: Thanks?

Q: Have they found what is causing the problem?
A: No, my doctor is an idiot. I’ll remind him/her, thanks!

from: But You Don't Look Sick

More tests!

Can I return my (insert body part eg uterus) because of factory defects or is it out of warranty?

Damn that’s what I thought.

What if my family and friends get tired of me being boring and sick?

It’s the not knowing that worries me the most.

Will it hurt?
Will scars show?
Will I get back to normal?
Is the medication addictive?
Will my hair grow back?

Causes of worry for Chronic illness

What happens

Some personalities are more prone to worrying - 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 a worrier?

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

Do I worry that I might be losing control?

What happens

Unhelpful thinking can create a cycle of tension and unease. For example before giving a speech you think - “I am going to make a fool of myself”, and then you sense the tension in your body until you have given your speech and then the worry leaves you. If you were to avoid giving the speech your worry is more likely to return or grow bigger the next time around.

Questions to ask yourself

What thoughts trigger worry for me?

Are these thoughts distorted or faulty?

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 worry that people are watching what you do, what you eat, when you exercise – everything becomes public.

Questions to ask yourself

How much do I worry what others think of me?

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

What happens

Having roles that give you meaning are important to your mental and emotional health. You might be a friend, a mother, an aunty, 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 not worry so much.

Questions to ask yourself

What roles and sense of purpose do I have?

Do I worry about any of 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)

What happens

The effect of an illness on your body varies from big to small, but even if it is small it is still 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 to worry.

Questions to ask yourself

How much do I worry about how my body looks?

How much am I worried 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 worry. 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, worry that others do not like or value you and that your thoughts or feelings are not important.

Questions to ask yourself

Has abuse, harm or violence caused me to be more vulnerable to worry?

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 worry 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 not. If you are in a relationship, your illness can impact on this, or if you are not in a relationship you may worry your illness will stop you from finding someone to be with.

Questions to ask yourself

Are there family problems that cause me to be worried?

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

What role does my family play in my illness?

Does my illness affect my partner?

Will my illness stop me from having a happy relationship?

What happens

You might be worried 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 a cumulative effect of worry 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?

Am I worried about losing some of my independence?

Have I experienced any stressful or difficult events recently? If so, what types of stressful experiences have I encountered?

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 much you worry. There are often fears about bills piling up and worries 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

Am I worried about money?

Am I worried about being a financial burden to others?

How much do I worry about money?

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 worry about being a burden to your friends too.

Questions to ask yourself

Do I feel my friends are being helpful?

Do I worry about the effects of my illness on my friends?

Which of my friends understand where I am at?

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 worry more 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 have that I can talk to if I need to?

How alone do I feel in this struggle?

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 be troubling.

Questions to ask yourself

Can I find the services I need to support me in my community?

How do I feel about the community where I live?

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 worry more about moving around in your community such as dealing with crowds or transport or shopping.

Questions to ask yourself

How much do I worry about being physically hurt?

How much do I worry about falling over?

How much do I worry that I could be hurt emotionally?

What happens

When you have an illness, you may worry about:

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

Am I worried by my work?

Do I feel secure in my job?

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

Do I feel exhausted by my job?

How much does worry about work stop me from focussing on my health during my time away from work?

Physical causes →
What happens

There are many physical aspects of your illness which can cause worry 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 much am I worried about the physical aspects of my illness?

How much am I worried 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 worry 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 worry you. On top of this, some medications can cause you to worry more.

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?

How confident do I feel I am getting the right type of treatment?

Will my medication cause me to worry?

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 worries.
  • be a sign you are trying to cover up or numb your feelings of worry.
Questions to ask yourself

How much am I drinking?

How worried am I about my drinking?

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 the pain or the effect your symptoms have on you - or the worry you have about your illness may keep you awake.

Questions to ask yourself

How much sleep do I get per night?

Do I get uninterrupted sleep for the hours I need to feel refreshed?

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

What happens

An unhealthy diet made up of high fat and sugary foods affects your mood and can make you more prone to worry. 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 worries such as what you can eat when you go out to cafes, restaurants or other people’s homes.

As well as dietary worries, lack of exercise can make you more prone to worry.

Questions to ask yourself

Do I generally eat a range of healthy foods?

How healthy is my diet?

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

Am I able to exercise enough to feel better?

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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