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Illness reactions

This blog is one of my many illness reactions. I created it almost a year after receiving my diagnosis. It was my chosen response to this new reality – the reality of being a patient. A few months before setting it up, I realised that as a doctor who has turned into a patient, I have gained valuable insights into the Malaysian Healthcare System and it is my responsibility to share it with others. Eventually, I discovered that writing the insights down not only allow me to share them with my readers but also helped me cope with the uncertainties of being chronically ill and enable me to make sense of this new world that at times seem entirely foreign. At the same time, I also realised that other patients may or may not choose to respond quite like I did and that each patient responds in their own distinctive ways.

Illness reactions vary

Patients’ illness reactions vary from one person to another. That is why you would never be able to observe two people with a similar diagnosis react in exactly the same manner. Each of us has our own unique way of responding to illnesses, largely due to our individual differences, personality traits, upbringing and culture. For example, an introverted patient may choose to respond to his/ her illness in a very muted manner, perhaps keeping it as a secret even from close family members. Whereas an extroverted patient may respond exaggeratedly, maybe using his/ her response as a way to unload the burden of the illness onto others. There is not one single textbook version of how patients would react to their illnesses. It is a wide spectrum and the way patients react to illnesses at any single moment can be rather random.

Components of illness reactions

The idiosyncrasy of illness reactions is also attributable to its different components and manifestations. They are:

  • Affective (emotions): Ranging from depression, anxiety, or indifference.
  • Cognitive (thoughts): Positive/ negative thoughts about illness.
  • Behavioural (actions): May or may not be in accordance with feelings and thoughts.

Each patient experiences his/ her own combination of the illness reaction components, which also changes from time to time. The fact that the components of illness reactions vary and are highly dynamic, make individual illness reactions extremely unique and unpredictable. Patients may also exhibit a few or all of the components, making illness reactions and its manifestation more complex and very distinct. If there is one thing that all patients’ illness reactions have in common is its lack of commonality.

Relationship with illness symptoms and severity

To make it more interesting, apparently, patients’ illness reactions do not depend on the severity of their symptoms and illnesses. So, a patient with a fatal illness may still exhibit positive aspects of the illness reactions components, while a patient with acute, self-limiting illness may well react in a catastrophic manner. If you have come across many patients with various symptoms and level of severity in your work, you might find yourself nodding in agreement. And if you have family members or friends with the diagnosis of various seriousness, you may have observed the differences in responses from each of them. Basically, it is impossible to predict how patients will react to their illness simply judging by their diagnosis. It has no bearing on patients’ illness reactions whatsoever.

What really matters in illness reactions

At the end of the day, what really matters is that we keep an open mind about illness reactions and maintain a non-judgmental stance on it. Remember, illness reactions are highly individual and dynamic in terms of their lived experiences and manifestations. It is also important that when being around patients or ill family members and friends that we recognise that there are no right or wrong illness reactions, nor are there good or bad reactions towards illness. Each individual is unique, experiencing illness in their own unique circumstances – and we should allow them to be the way they please and in their own space without trying to direct their illness reactions in any way that we deemed as ‘better’ or ‘more productive’. And if you are a patient, just do you and forget about what others may think about your own special way of responding to your illness. We (patients) already have too much on our plates anyway.

Image by Alexandra Haynak from Pixabay


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