How Being Chronically Sick Leads to Shame

Did you do something to cause your illness? What are you not doing to cure it?

These are questions that loom over your head if you suffer from chronic disease. They can be the real or perceived questions from those around you or are ones you personally battle with daily. As if dealing with the physical symptoms were not enough, the emotional experiences attached to chronic disease can be an overwhelming and limiting factor in your healing journey.

If you have a chronic disease, you may experience more social, interactional and existential problems than those with acute illnesses, because your illness persists. Serious illness can pose challenges to your daily lifestyle, prior beliefs, moral judgements, ethical dilemmas, identity and your ways of understanding yourself.

For example, if you are diagnosed with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), every day presents a challenge. SIBO occurs when bacteria that normally grow in other parts of your gut, start growing in your small intestine. A slew of other symptoms with this chronic disease are diarrhea, nutrient deficiency, malabsorption, issues with weight, immune deficiency and more. This disorder allows infections and other health problems to occur more often for you.

Your daily challenges start by having to monitor how you are feeling physically and emotionally. You need to have an idea of how good you are feeling for tackling the day ahead. You know that if you overwhelm yourself, you may have a painful flareup. You don’t want to leave work abruptly or excuse yourself from your child’s birthday party because you are in pain. The sense of disappointment in yourself and from those around can feel worse than the pain itself.

Considering where you are at in your healing process, you may feel strained to meet the expectations required of you at work, at home and with your friends. The level of sales you once were able to make have been on a downward scale, your ability to attend your children’s sports games are far and few and your friends are wondering why you never meet up with them anymore.

When you feel you are falling short on your values, you are experiencing feelings of shame. Because chronic disease is not something you can rapidly change, you go back to those disapproving questions mentioned above. Shame internalizes a belief that you are somehow at fault for getting sick and for continuing to be sick. It is claimed that because shame is linked to your core identity, it is among the most powerful and significant affective experiences.


The Vicious Cycle of Shame


How do feelings of shame affect you physically?

As you sort through the changes to your life that have occurred since your chronic disease began, you may feel that your identity has changed too. Studies have demonstrated that fearing threats to your identity can increase inflammatory signaling in your cells, release of the stress hormone- cortisol, and that this occurs side by side with shame.

Chronic disease can come with chronic shame. This means that your elevated levels of cortisol and inflammation can be persistently altered, leading to a variety of negative health effects as a result. Some of which are: weight gain, heart disease, decreased immune functions, hardening of your arteries and cardiovascular issues. As if you weren’t dealing with enough.

Shame can threaten your feelings of belonging and acceptance within yourself and your social circles. It can be an alienating and isolating experience.

In a moment of shame, you may feel flawed or inferior, and you feel as though others can see this too. Shame creates a state of panic where your rational thoughts are overridden by wanting to conceal your feelings of it. For worry of exposure, shame derails your brain’s cognitive abilities and higher cortical functions to act responsibly, and be genuinely attuned to the needs of yourself and of others.

In a vicious cycle, chronic disease can lead to shame and shame can directly cause or further poor health.


The Journey to Let It Go


How is your shame helping you? Do you feel like it is a duty to carry it with you?

Every first step towards healing from something, starts with recognition.

You recognize that you have a chronic disease and that it causes you shame.

Imagine that you let go of the handlebars of shame, on the roller coaster of your chronic disease. Yes, there may be hills to ascend and spirals of symptoms to sort out, but you didn’t fly out of your seat or go off track!

Instead, by loosening your grip, you have invited a better ability to experience a ride towards healing.

You are fully present in each moment of your wellness journey, making it easier for health-promoting lifestyle changes to become habits. You feel more genuine in your interactions with yourself and others by doing what you know is best for you.

You recognize your illness may not be understood by everyone. However, you choose to spend your time with those who do and this helps you move forward.

After the recognition and analyzing that occur when you start to let go of shame, you must make it a habit to let shameful thoughts pass. They may come up, but with mindfulness, you will let them go. And it is important to separate feelings of shame with other feelings that come up.

Perhaps you hear yourself say, “I am so overweight because of my illness, that no one will find me attractive,” you are feeling shame. Detach yourself from devaluing thoughts by allowing yourself to honor another feeling such as grief. Instead tell yourself, “I’m sad that my illness has changed my body.” Accept that this is a feeling that can pass. It is something you can work to overcome and that you deserve better thoughts as they are more instrumental towards your healing.


The Healthcare That Honors Your Body, Mind and Spirit


An important factor for healing is determining how you seek and receive help for your chronic disease and the emotional and spiritual symptoms that come with it.

Commonly, shame is reported to invoke a tendency to avoid healthcare. It can lead you to not disclose full details of your mental and physical ill-health, or your sexual or literary status. This can result in ineffective treatment, prescription, failure to complete treatment, or to hide diagnosis from family and friends. Even if you are concerned about your illness, shame can have you fearing exposure. In this way, letting go of shame can save your life.

Functional Medicine takes a unique approach to considering you as an individual, not just as a set of symptoms. Your thoughts and feelings are valid and taken into account along with the physical issues you are experiencing.

With respect and understanding to your body, mind and spirit, Functional Medicine seeks to get to the root cause of your disease. As discussed above, your feelings directly affect your body physically and must be considered when your doctor determines the path of your treatment. As a Functional Medicine patient, you are given a customized recovery plan that takes into account the feelings that are understood to exist alongside chronic disease.

If you are ready to commit towards your wellness journey and are looking for a healthcare that nurtures your body, emotional and spiritual health, Functional Medicine is for you.

For more information on Functional Medicine visit my website at and follow us on Instagram & Facebook for daily health tips, information and inspiration.
To Your Health,
Kiran Grewal MD

 "My goal is to share my knowledge with the world. I believe in delivering valuable and ethical content that changes the lives of my patients."

-Kiran Grewal MD







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