Are you having a difficult time adjusting to a disability? Are you unsure about the best ways to work on the emotional and physical challenges? To help understand what type of impact a disability can have on someone’s overall life and what someone can do to cope with their physical or mental disability, I have interviewed psychologist Dr. Leslie Simon.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I’m a clinical psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’ve been providing psychotherapy, counseling and coaching to individuals and families for the past 20 years. My broad areas of focus are health psychology, couples and family therapy, and business coaching/consulting. I am also trained as a neuropsychologist and often find this knowledge helpful when working with individuals and families adjusting to disability.”
What type of impact can a disability have on someone’s overall life?
“Disability is a very broad area. Let’s assume we’re talking about an acquired disability, as opposed to one which has been part of an individual’s early developmental picture. With a serious disability, a person can face the loss of previous capacities to work, to live independently, to participate in valued social activities, or to reliably carry out basic activities of daily living. Nevertheless, many individuals are able to go through the experience of such losses and to find new and deeply meaningful perspectives in living. How do they do that?”
“An onset of a disabling condition thrusts one into a major life transition. Within that transition, one comes to terms with a fundamental truth: We are all responsible for creating (and recreating) our own meaning. We are also by nature adaptive creatures. So there is a growth process that needs to occur as part of an individual’s healing and coming to a state of well-being while living with a disability. And a large part of that process involves answering the question “Who am I now?””
“A disability may involve some combination of physical, cognitive, emotional, sensory and social interaction challenges. It may involve a traumatic event and a long period of rehabilitation, or it may be related to a chronic medical or mental health illness. In either case, it is a social event as well as an individual one. People who have been quite independent in their lives can find themselves depending on others for essential needs. This creates an opportunity to learn how to work toward resuming as much independent living as possible while allowing the experience of being cared for by health professionals and family and friends.”
“There is a great deal of grieving that must be done in order to proceed through the transition to living optimally with a long-term disability. Part of that experience for some may be learning to live with and manage chronic pain. Others also must struggle with the loss of valued roles, including work identities. Some may be able to return to prior work at some point, others will need to redesign their lives. So the picture is quite varied. It’s critical for individuals and their families to have social support through this process.”-
“Another aspect I think is important for anyone adjusting in the early stages of disability. It is sometimes not clear whether a disability will be permanent, will improve greatly but produce residual problems, or will resolve completely. Being able to tolerate not knowing what your outcome will be can be difficult. It involves cultivating the ability to tolerate uncertainty while you are working optimally on recovery and healing. This is where an individual’s temperament and personality can matter quite a bit. “
What tips can you give someone who is trying to cope with his or her disability?
1. “Find and use whatever resources are available to you. This includes partnering with responsive, empathic health professionals who you can trust in an ongoing relationship. Don’t work with someone you don’t feel is a good fit for you.”
2. “Try not to isolate. Stay connected to the people you care about, and let them stay connected to you.”
3. “Give it time. You will learn how to work with your condition, find new meaning, and grow through this process. If you find that you are in an extended period of anger and “protest” about your situation, practice “radical acceptance” for now, while you work on healing physically and emotionally.”
4. “You are not defined by your disability. This is a realization that may take a while to come to, because it may seem that your social role has shifted a great deal toward that of “patient”. In working with individuals adjusting to disability, I suggest they try to adopt one primary perspective about themselves: “I’m a person who is working on wellness, growth and adaptation.” That is your primary job until you are farther along in the transition process and in your healing. What does “wellness” mean to you? Figure that out and put your energies there.”
5. “Identify what is causing the most distress and problem-solve with family and professionals to keep those stresses as low as possible. Financial strain is often a concern. Learn what you may qualify for from federal, state and employer disability programs and get those in place. That can relieve a big source of stress.”
What type of professional help is available for someone that is having a difficult time coping with his or her disability?
“A health psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral and mindfulness approaches is an important resource to put in place. These individuals also will know community resources that may be helpful to you and your family.”
“If there is a traumatic brain injury or other neurological impairment, I recommend working with a neuropsychologist. These specialists can help with cognitive, emotional and social rehabilitation and with family adaptation.”
“To help you identify other resources about living optimally with disabilities, look into the Center for Independent Living near your area and check out caregiver support groups as well.”
Thank you Dr. Simon for doing the interview on tips for coping with a disability. For more information on Simon or her work you can check out her website at http://www.marinpsychologyresources.com.
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