Getting an official diagnosis after struggling with symptoms and navigating points of care can be a bittersweet experience.
On one hand, many are relieved to put a name to challenging experiences – whether it’s learning your intense highs and lows are consistent with bipolar disorder, or finally identifying that your persistent joint aches and body fatigue indicate fibromyalgia. On the other hand, the formality of a diagnosis can provide an overwhelming amount of new information and resources, shake off any protective denial about how much impact those symptoms are having, and set off anxieties about identity.
In my work supporting clients learning to live well with chronic physical illnesses or mental health conditions, I’ve noticed many people take four key steps to process their diagnosis and integrate this understanding into their lives:
Make sure your specialist provides you with appropriate education about your diagnosis and, as their job requires, explains their reasoning to you in layman’s terms. To ensure you get all the answers you need, take fifteen minutes before follow-up appointments to reflect on any questions you have about diagnosis and treatment. It is advisable that you jot them down to help you keep track and follow up, if necessary.
If the conversations seem awkward or confusing to follow, consider asking a trusted family member or friend join you as an advocate. Then, take it one step further and empower yourself to deepen your comprehension of your diagnosis by researching and reviewing medical literature available online from credible websites and databases.
You are not the first person to go through something like this – others have had similar feelings of worry or confusion when their symptoms started, reactions of sadness or clarity when getting a diagnosis, or discomfort and excitement in forging ahead and figuring out what comes next.
Search for blogs or social media accounts run by those who have learned how to effectively navigate life with your diagnosis or one that is similar. Reach out to support groups in your area where you and other members are given the space to share experiences, get helpful tips from others who understand your concerns and needs, and decompress. If you best understand your mental health or your medical status in the context of a specific cultural experience (such as your racial identity, religious background, or LGBTQ identity), think about if you would prefer to connect with resources made by/for that community.
Getting a diagnosis can involve a profound paradigm shift, and yet in many ways, life goes on. Keeping healthy may involve changing your lifestyle, but it does not have to mean saying goodbye to everything that is important to you. If getting enough sleep is crucial to managing your symptoms, you might still be able to go to that concert if you plan ahead to take the next day off work and rest up.
If you love to exercise but jogging puts pressure on your body and, in turn, counteracts your treatment, talk to your doctor about swimming or other possible options for staying active. Be aware of when your health means you have to say no, but also know when your health allows you to say yes.
Prioritize your personal goals as your diagnosis points you toward the next steps of your care. Take the time to reflect on what’s most important to you – learn what this means for your dating life, make sure your family has the knowledge and skills to best support you, switch things up with your workplace or career – and let that guide your decisions and keep you motivated to move forward. It’s great to be inspired by others who have gone through the recovery journey but avoid comparing yourself to them as a measure of your success.
Living well looks different for everyone, and the most important person in this equation is you!
If you have recently received a diagnosis for a mental health condition or chronic physical illness, I hope this turning point will offer you the opportunity to further invest in your wellness and keep pursuing what you want from life.
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Teresa Thompson, LCSW is a psychotherapist licensed to practice in New York State. She is passionate about working with Caribbean and Caribbean American clients, members of the BIPOC LGBTQ community, and clients experiencing challenges relating to religion and/or spirituality. Teresa's clinical approach is trauma-informed and draws from Motivational Interviewing, Psychodynamic Therapy, and feminist and postcolonial critical theory. Check out her website or reach out at [email protected]