Chronic Illness and The Lifestyle Myth

We are living in an age where lifestyle is finally being recognized as one of the cornerstones of health. There are good reasons to be concerned about our lifestyle these days. As our population gets older, our bodies become more difficult to maintain and the consequences of poor lifestyle choices can become more evident. 

The concept that we should be actively involved in our own health makes a lot of sense. For too long our health system has concentrated on fixing problems to the detriment of promoting wellness and I believe it is important that we address this imbalance.

The difficulty occurs when we pursue lifestyle solutions with a religious zeal, believing that lifestyle is the cause and cure of every ailment and every disease.  It is true that many chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, lung cancer, heart disease and hypertension often have roots related to diet, exercise or smoking. These are significant health issues that impact a large number of people and should not be ignored.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency, as human beings, to generalize ideas and concepts. As a result, the term chronic illness has become shorthand for lifestyle illness, which is fundamentally incorrect.

To put this in context, The World Health Organization identifies more than 70 different types of chronic illnesses and most of them are not directly related to obesity, lack of exercise or smoking. In fact, many of these diseases occur in people with relatively healthy lifestyles.

Healthy Habits Alone Can’t Cure Most Chronic Illnesses

One of the most difficult things for healthy people to understand is that people with certain illnesses sometimes have little control over their disease. Many conditions (particularly autoimmune disorders) can flare up for no obvious reason. This is an uncomfortable truth that most people do not like to hear. As human beings we like to think we have total control over our health, but the sad fact is that sometimes we do not.

Regrettably, people with chronic illness often get blamed for things they have no control over. I have had more than one coaching client phone me in tears after getting a reprimand from her boss for not taking care of herself. The employee’s disease had flared up and the manager made the assumption that something the employee did or did not do was likely the cause.

The Stress of Managing Chronic Illness and Invisible Disability

This idea that every person with a chronic illness is somehow responsible for their poor health is not only incorrect, but puts additional strain on someone who is already managing a great deal of stress in their lives. The resulting level of guilt and frustration can be indescribable.       

To add to the stress, the complex and individual nature of many chronic diseases often makes it difficult to distinguish “healthy behavior” from “non-healthy” behavior.

I remember an incident involving a friend of mine who had Crohn’s disease and, like me, could no longer eat high fiber foods due scar tissue build-up on his intestines. I listened as a co-worker started criticizing my friend’s diet to another person in the office; “No wonder he’s always sick! Look at the crap he eats – meat, dairy and white bread.”

As I overheard this unjust criticism, I couldn’t help but realize that this was exactly the same diet I was limited to. I wondered how many people were thinking the same thing about me – and criticizing me behind my back. 

Please keep this in mind the next time you feel compelled to give health advice to co-workers or employees. Every illness is different and what you think may be healthy for someone could be just the opposite.

Making judgments about others is an unfortunate, but common aspect of our human nature. However, judging the lifestyle of someone with a chronic illness without knowing the facts is not only hurtful to the employee but could also cause damage to the organization in the long run.

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