Chronic Illness or Chronic Sensitivity?

A couple of weeks ago I was once again reflecting on the widespread use of the term, chronic illness, two words used to describe a wide range of illnesses, everything from diabetes to cancer to migraine headaches to rheumatoid arthritis. Those 2 words evoke, in me, a feeling of finality and futility, a prognosis I admittedly resist.

I posted the following query on Facebook, which launched an interesting discussion. It appears I’m not alone in my desire to be cautious about the language we use – and that I may be a little too sensitive. Here’s how it went.

Me: I have been grappling with my general dislike of the term “chronic illness” for some time. Yesterday a new term came to mind, “chronic sensitivity.” It occurs as a more accurate description of the long-term journey, with an eye on health and healing instead of illness. What do you think?

After you’re done reading the post, I invite you to
add your thoughts in the comment section.

Ilona Rudolfs: For me as a European, not native-English-speaker, I would not have any idea of what you could mean, when you use these words. For me as someone who enjoys the privilege of the journey you mentioned, I know exactly what you mean and agree. -> in my opinion, the best words depend on who you are talking to. (I am curious what others will answer to your question!)

C.J. Hayden: Joan, I can relate to the desire to not think of a person as ill, however, I think it’s also important to be clear about what is meant. What would you think of “chronic health condition,” or just “chronic condition” when the health context is clear.

Joan Friedlander:  From my current vantage point, although the doctors say I have a chronic illness, I experience it as a chronic sensitivity, meaning that there are no symptoms but I am aware that some susceptibility remains. In the past, it was more accurate to say “chronic illness” or “chronic condition.”

Upon reflection, I think we have a spectrum here. It depends on where one is in the experience of being ill, from acute to chronic, and within chronic, just how chronic.

C.J. Hayden Ah, then you are talking about another possibility, I think. So in the spectrum, one could be acutely ill, chronically ill, have a chronic condition, or have a chronic sensitivity. To me, sensitivity would imply something like an allergy — a condition which causes you no problems as long as you take care of it. But if it could flare up again no matter what you did, to me that would be a chronic condition.

Joan Friedlander Yes, that sounds right. Nicely articulated C.J.! In the end, my aim is to reach people in the chronic ranges to assist them in understanding what is mutable and what is, at the moment, their reality so that they can recover more easily.

Cindy Reinhardt We so need new, empowering language and this thread is a beautiful way (from awesome folks!) to move in that direction!

Michael Stratford: the challenge with the word chronic is that in popular culture it has taken on an ‘in perpetuity’ context, meaning chronic has now come to almost mean…it’s never going away. The etymology of it is actually “lasting a long time” and in the 17th century somehow a “vague disapproving sense coming from it’s relationship with addiction” came to be.

So really, chronic, while simply originally being descriptive of a length of time has come to mean something ‘bad’ unfortunately. But in any case, chronic does not mean “is never going away”….

Joan Friedlander:  Michael, yes, “never going away” is what I hear when the word chronic is used today. Thanks for the etymology perspective.”Lasting a long time” describes my experience and offers the *potential* for healing – how long & to what degree is highly individual.

Ferrier Stillman What about long term or lasting sensitivity? The problem w/ chronic is that it’s taken on such a negative connotation

KB:  Sounds like somebody who is emotionally hyper sensitive….that’s what came up for me.

Joan Friedlander: K., interesting observation …. Personally speaking, physical sensitivity – or not – has an energetic/emotional component. Personal meaning was physical sensitivity, yet the continued road to health is successful management of my energy, physical and emotional.

This discussion and all your comments have given me good food for thought. (Digestion metaphor!) Per the collection of comments here, awareness about the words we use to describe circumstances can lock us in or open us up (my best words for now).

What are your thoughts about the terms we use?

  • Specifically, how do you feel about the term “chronic illness.” Is it the best description?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • What did you think about these various comments and suggestions quoted in this post?

4 thoughts on “Chronic Illness or Chronic Sensitivity?

  1. I always consult Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary first, so according to the 1828 CHRONIC means continuing for a long time as opposed to resolving quickly.

    As an adult survivor of a childhood cancer who lives daily with various late effects of radiation and chemotherapy, I find myself less concerned about labels and semantics and more concerned about educating and equipping myself to be proactive in maintaining my health and wellbeing.

    Great dialogue; need to follow you on FB, Joan.


    1. I admit, I’ve always resisted labels (I decided not to pursue a masters in psychology because I felt that the field tended to put boxes around people through a diagnosis, intentional or not).

      I appreciate you for “letting them be.” A strong approach: educating, equipping and pro-acting (!)

      Didn’t know you were on FB. Yes, let’s connect.

  2. Hi:) My name is Lenore Shapiro and my daughter has Crohns. She was diagnosed at 12 and is now 24. You can read her story on our website and FB The Foundation for NIBD.

    We are a non profit that supports and raises awareness for nutrition research for juvenile IBD…. We also help adults, but early intervention is one of our goals in educating people in the importance of proper nutrition. Thank you:)

    1. Hi Lenore, thank you for introducing you and your daughter to me and to my audience. I’m glad that Jordyn has found her way to health and healing. It sounds like you’ve turned a difficult challenge into an educational opportunity, as seems to be one of the more “positive” outcomes of healing when life throws a curve ball.

      I know that when I finally got well (my road to recovery was not through nutritional adjustment, but through emotional and meta-physical healing) I realized that the journey is my gift.

      Any comments on the use of the word “chronic” to describe these illnesses? A finite statement or simply a way to describe a set of conditions? Just curious…

      All my best, Joan

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