How to Reduce Stress During Long-Term Illness

by Cynthia Mascott, LMHC

Although it is very difficult to live with a long-term illness, help is available. Research has shown that stress management techniques can relieve some of the symptoms you may be experiencing while living with a chronic condition.

The mind-body connection is an important part of living with an illness. When Saturday Review editor, Norman Cousins, was recuperating from an illness in the hospital, he became discouraged by his health problems. He decided to heal himself by using laughter. Armed with copies of Candid Camera and Marx Brothers films, he laughed his way to health. In his book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, he wrote, "I was greatly elated by the discovery that there is a physiological basis for the ancient theory that laughter is good medicine."

In Herbert Bensonís book, The Relaxation Response, careful attention is given to the connection between learning new stress management techniques and improving your health. He believes that if "you regularly elicit this (relaxation) response, build it into your daily existence, the situations that activate your sympathetic nervous system could be counteracted by a process allowing your body to decrease its sympathetic nervous system activity."

A variety of stress management techniques are now being used to treat chronic illness. These include:

Meditation: The beauty of practicing meditation is that it allows you to "let go" of every day worries and literally "live in the moment." People who meditate regularly report improvements physically, mentally, and spiritually. To begin a meditation practice, you will need to find a quiet spot, away from the phone, television, friends, family, and other distractions. There are several different ways to meditate. Meditation practices often involve learning chanting, breathing, or mantra techniques. Initially, your mind may wander when you first start meditating. by training your mind to focus on the moment, you will eventually find yourself transformed and feel very peaceful and content. Most experts recommend mediating for about 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Beginners may find it difficult to meditate for this length at first, but donít despair. It will become easier once you are meditating regularly.

Biofeedback: This method involves attaching surface electromyography electrodes (SEMG) to your skin. The SEMG measures your blood pressure, muscle tension level, breathing, and heart rate. A biofeedback therapist will meet with you and show you the ways in which your body reacts on a computer screen. The therapist will then teach you new skills for decreasing the level of stress you are experiencing. The results are shown on the screen. You literally get automatic feedback!

Acupuncture: Acupuncture has been used as a proven method of medical practice in China for more than 2,500 years. It is just gaining popularity in the United States. It is based on the concept that energy circulates throughout the body by way of specific pathways. Illness results when energy is blocked. Improved health results by stimulating specific energy points with acupuncture needles.

Yoga: Yoga combines meditation and physical exercise to achieve improved health and sense of well-being. Yoga has been practiced in India for over 5,000 years. Yoga involves repeating movements that can help improve strength and flexibility as well as promote mental and physical health and greater self-understanding. The movements are very graceful and have spiritual significance. Paying careful attention to breathing is also part of practicing yoga.

Guided Imagery: Guided Imagery is a wonderful stress reduction tool which uses "visualization" and "mental imagery" techniques to improve health. It has been used effectively for cancer patients who literally imagine themselves without the cancerous cells. Other creative visualization techniques include transporting the individual to a quiet place in their mind (perhaps a favorite lake, river, or forest). You can either create your own special place or listen to a guided imagery tape or CD. According to the Guided Imagery Resource Center, guided imagery can "reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and glucose levels in the blood and heighten short-term immune cell activity."

As our understanding of the mind-body connection expands, more and more people are taking advantage of these wonderful techniques.


Cousins, N. (1979). Anatomy of an illness as perceived by the patient. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing.

Benson, H. (1975). The relaxation response. New York: William Morrow & Company.

What is guided imagery? (2000, February 10). Akron, OH: Guided Imagery Resource Center. Retrieved February 10, 2000 from World Wide Web:

Date published: 2/18/00 1:23:53 PM
Last updated: 30 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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