How to Survive and Thrive in College with Chronic Illness

College can be one of the most amazing and also one of the most stressful time periods. For a lot of people, this is the first time in their lives that they have to manage life without having their family around.

This is exciting and promotes an enormous amount of personal growth, but it isn’t without its challenges.

It’s especially challenging for people who have to manage a chronic health condition. Individuals who monitor conditions like diabetes, Crohn’s disease, IBS, epilepsy, asthma, arthritis, hypertension, and other medical conditions have a lot of work cut out for themselves, on top of college life.

Being successful in your studies and social life while also managing a chronic health condition can be quite daunting. Anyone who lives with a chronic illness knows that managing your health is pretty much a full-time job!

In this article, we will break down some of the most important things to consider when planning your daily college routines, to help you thrive in the classroom and with your overall health status while attending university.

My Story

My name is Josh and I’m the creator of SIBOSurvivor.com. I’ve lived with a severe case of the chronic gastrointestinal illness known as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) for a number of years. I’ve dealt with some pretty severe symptoms such as diarrhea, chronic fatigue, depression, and anxiety. I’ve managed to improve my health to the point where I’m able to function more optimally than before and have a better quality of life.

Living with a chronic illness is a difficult journey filled with ups and downs. The reason I wanted to share this article is in hope that someone else may find value in the ideas shared. I managed to survive, then eventually thrive, when finishing my college education. It was a really difficult and challenging time in my life but I learned a lot going through it.

I was able to move across the country to the University of Alabama and graduate with honors. I struggled at times with my social life but ended up making some good friends along the way. I definitely had my moments of frustration, suffering, skipped classes and loneliness but was able to have an overall pleasant experience.

The steps and ideas below are what helped me get through this time in my life, living with a chronic illness, and do so successfully. If you follow these steps I believe that you can too!

1. Get Your Health Team in Place

One of the most important components that enabled me to get through this time in my life, and graduate college, was having a health team in place. The following are examples of people on your health team.

  • A doctor that you can check in with every once in a while (monthly or every few months) by Skype if you’re away from home
  • A family member who is willing to talk to you when you’re struggling or help you out with any health-related tasks when you’re busy
  • A friend who understands what you go through, that you can ask for help
  • A friend in each of your important classes who can fill you in on necessary materials if you have to skip due to your illness
  • A connection with someone at your college medical center or disability center to get required medications and health checks on campus

For most people who live with a chronic illness, they need the necessary support to help them out while working to excel in classes. College life demands a lot of energy and attention to studies as well as social activity so it’s crucial that you have a strong “health team” in place in order to support yourself.

For me, I found one of the most helpful things was being able to Skype with my doctor back home, every once in a while, to check in. A lot of times it helps just being able to talk to a doctor who understands your health situation so that they can recommend potential solutions and help you settle down when you’re not feeling as well.

Also having a family member who was willing to help me out with certain things and jump on the phone to talk was super helpful from a mental health perspective.

2. Plan Your Class Schedule for Optimum Health

The next step in successfully surviving and thriving in college with a chronic illness is planning your class schedule in a way that provides balance.

This can be highly dependent on the symptoms you manage and when you function the best.

For example, since I have a digestive illness where my symptoms can be more severe in the morning, I planned my classes for later in the day. The following are tips that helped me.

  • Plan your class times for when you function the best.  If your symptoms are worse in the morning, maybe schedule your classes from 10 am on so you have time to get up and relax. If your symptoms are worst in the evening, plan your classes for the early morning.
  • Balance your class difficulty. Try pairing your most demanding class with another class that doesn’t require as much brain power to give yourself a break. By balancing out your daily class schedule you can keep your daily stress load to a minimum.
  • Consider online classes. This can help balance out your schedule and allow your body some more rest when you need it, by learning from home. If this is something your school offers, talk with a guidance counselor about your options.
  • Sign up for classes with friends. Check in with your friends who are pursuing the same degree, or taking similar classes, to see if there are class times you can both sign up for. This will make the process of studying, note taking, and learning a little easier and potentially more enjoyable.

3. Eat Healthy on Campus

causes of siboWhen you live with a chronic illness, getting healthy nutrition is very important for optimal health outcomes and energy.

During stressful times, like college, it’s important not to eat junk food all the time. A hurting body needs quality, whole foods to function at its best.

Since I live with a digestive disorder this is especially important because food plays a direct role in my symptom management. Below are a few tips that helped me.

  • Find a healthy, readily available, option. Is there a place on your campus where they serve healthy whole food meals and snacks? Explore your campus to find these locations so that you can get consistent, nourishing food.
  • Stock up on whole foods from the campus grocery store. If your dorm or apartment has a stove or microwave, or if you own a crock-pot, cooking simple meals can be a helpful option. Quick and easy options include brown rice, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables, cooked chicken, nuts and nut butter, and healthy protein smoothies.
  • Avoid lots of greasy and unhealthful foods. Friends may want to go out and drink, but it is important for you to avoid overdoing this as much as possible. The peer pressure can be difficult to manage, but it just isn’t worth it if you deal with a chronic illness. If you’re going to splurge, do it when your stress load is decreased and your class assignments are lighter.
  • Keep alcohol consumption to a minimum. Social events are a big part of college, but they don’t have to all involve alcohol. Find some friends who don’t need alcohol to have fun and make it a point to hang out with them. It isn’t uncommon for drinking to lead to unhealthy eating, increased stress, and flare ups of medical conditions.
  • Pack a few healthy snacks to take with you during the day. If you’re feeling rushed and don’t have time to eat a meal, eating a healthy snack can do the trick. This can help you avoid making poor dietary choices and going too long without fuel.

4. Talk to Your Teachers About Your Health Situation

This is one of the hardest things to do, but it can oftentimes be the most helpful. This can be a huge help when working to excel in your studies, and also battling a health condition. Below are the things that helped me.

  • Approach your teachers. Either before or after class, preferably during the first week of school, approach your teachers, introduce yourself, and ask them if they would be willing to meet up for a coffee so you can fill them in on your situation. This will allow you to briefly chat with your teachers about your health condition and what they can expect from you in class.
  • Discuss your situation. During the meetup, let them know that sometimes you may be feeling worse than others and have to miss class or get up and leave to take a break. 95% of teachers will understand, as long as they know what you go through on a daily basis. If they don’t know about your health situation then they may just assume that you’re slacking off.
  • Follow up routinely. If you would like, make it a point to grab a coffee or chat with your teachers when they have office hours, once every few months. If you develop relationships with your teachers, it can let up some of the stress of classes. When someone understands you and the effort you’re putting in, it can make a big difference.

5. Plan Studies Ahead to Reduce Stress

Unless you already know the class material, consistent study routines are going to be a necessity in college. When living with a chronic illness, your symptoms can fluctuate, and unforeseen downturns can occur. It’s part of the process, unfortunately. This means it’s going to be crucial to develop excellent study habits so that when negative cycles do occur, you aren’t swept behind. Below is what I found helpful.

  • Set a designated study time.Being prepared and studying ahead of time is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. This will help you balance your stress load and not overburden your body. If you rely on cramming the week before tests and completing homework assignments the night before, you are going to put your body into overdrive. This will not be helpful and will put a strain on your emotional and physical health. Try having a designated study period each day to complete tasks and assignments ahead of time, in small quantities. I learned this my last 2 years of college and it made my life so much easier.
  • Do the required reading each day.Once again, it’s all about planning ahead. Take small steps each day and allow yourself time to process the material on a consistent basis. When you do this, there is absolutely no need to cram before a test. Once I got this process down I didn’t have to study as much for tests and quizzes because I was already learning the materials consistently over time. This can make a big difference.
  • Find a quiet place to read and study.For me, this was the library on the top floor, near the window. It became my happy place where I would dive into books and materials each day. I went there routinely and found that having this routine made my studies and classes much easier, as I was able to zone in without any distractions.
  • Plan and study ahead.I want to reiterate this one more time because this is the most important thing you can do to avoid burnout, high stress, and health flare-ups while in college. When living with a chronic illness, it’s harder to tolerate late nights and erratic schedules, so it’s vital that you plan and study ahead, in small amounts. If you can do this, it will help you avoid major setbacks when issues in your health do come up.

6. Have Fun and Know Your Limits

Part of being a college student is enjoying new friendships and social events. If you live with a chronic illness, it definitely makes your social life harder, but you can still have a good time. Just don’t beat yourself up if you can’t make it to everything you want to. Below are a few things that helped me.

  • Do what you can. If you’re not feeling good and need to skip a dinner with friends or an event, don’t stress about it. It’s best to listen to your body and get the necessary rest you need. There’s plenty of opportunities for social activities.
  • Go to social events for a shorter amount of time. A lot of the time, I found it helpful to go to one of the get-together events, even for a few hours. This allowed me to hang out with friends but not push my body too far.
  • Attend a party without drinking or only have one drink. It can be hard to avoid alcohol in college but if you let your friends know that drinking isn’t good for your health then they should understand.
  • Find the right social groups. It may take time, but find the friends who care about you and understand what you live with. Also, it may help to see if there are any campus support groups for your condition. This is a good way to find other people who are dealing with similar issues that you can talk to for support.

7. Find Necessary Health Resources on Campus

When living with a medical condition, it’s important to know where the medical center and other health resources are on your campus. It’s always best to be prepared for when your health takes a dip or you need some extra support.

If you haven’t already been to the health center, then ask a campus representative to point you in the right direction. It’s best to walk to the health center and speak to someone who can set up an appointment for you. This can help you make connections with the health professionals on campus, so you can reach out when you’re in need of help. I recommend doing this the first week of school and once each semester.

Hang in there and Good Luck!

If you follow the steps outlined and customize your college routines to fit your health circumstance, you can successfully graduate from college. It definitely won’t be easy since you have to juggle both your health issue and your studies, but you can do it. Remember, when you need help, be sure to reach out to your health team and the campus health department. It’s important that you have a support system.

I wish you the best in your exciting college years and also with good health. Do the best you can to keep your head up. It takes an amazing amount of courage, discipline, and hard work to graduate from college with a chronic illness. You should be proud of yourself for hanging in there!

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