What You Need To Know About Invisible Illnesses

Have you ever felt so ill that you could barely function despite "looking" healthy? Perhaps you've had back pain, anxiety, or depression. Now imagine living with a chronic disease and having to explain your condition to prospective employers, friends, or random strangers. Fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and certain disabilities are all invisible illnesses, explains Northwest Primary Care. The same goes for heart disease, Lyme disease, lupus, and digestive disorders like ulcerative colitis or celiac disease. People living with these conditions often suffer in silence and feel misunderstood.

About 96% of chronic diseases have no visible symptoms, says Northwest Primary Care. You may look perfectly healthy from the outside and yet experience severe pain, headaches, fatigue, or lethargy. Some invisible illnesses, such as cancer or heart disease, may have no symptoms whatsoever in their early stages. What's more, about 10% of the U.S. population has some sort of invisible disability like schizophrenia, chronic dizziness, or renal failure, reports Disabled World. Chances are, you encounter someone with a hidden illness every day on your way to work, on the street, or in stores.

Hypothyroidism, for instance, affects 5 out of 100 Americans over the age of 12, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Its symptoms may include weight gain, muscle aches, depression, tiredness, and increased sensitivity to cold. If, say, you have an underactive thyroid and gain weight, others may blame your lifestyle and look at you critically. 

The hidden burden of invisible illnesses

Invisible illnesses place a double burden on sufferers. First of all, these physical or mental conditions affect your health and quality of life — and some can lead to disability or even death. Second, people with invisible illnesses often have to deal with questions from others and may be perceived as being lazy or high maintenance, explains Psychology Today. Sometimes, they face judgment and feel misunderstood, which contributes to depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Living with an invisible illness can take a toll on your mental health. Those in this situation often isolate themselves and may feel hopeless about their future. Some end up quitting their jobs or can no longer pursue their hobbies and passions, notes Counseling Today. "I wish people would understand that I am not just being lazy by not working. I miss my independence. I miss the social aspect of work," said Alice M., a woman diagnosed with osteoarthritis, in an interview with Healthline.

Counseling Today reports that people with invisible illnesses are more likely to take their lives because of the struggles they face. Those with cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and other severe ailments have the highest risk of suicide. These individuals are in a constant battle with their disease, public judgment, and the lack of understanding surrounding their illness. 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255). 

How to support someone with an invisible condition

People with invisible ailments use different coping mechanisms to get through the day, and sometimes, their behavior may seem odd. For example, they may plan for bathroom breaks, wear sunglasses indoors, or cancel plans unexpectedly, notes Everyday Health. In such cases, the best thing you can do is show empathy instead of judging or asking questions. Your loved one needs moral support more than anything else. They're not seeking attention or trying to make others pity them.

Refrain from asking questions like, "You're canceling on me again?" or "Are you still sick? You look fine." Also, don't assume they're lazy, needy, or playing sick. "People always assume I'm lazy when they have no idea how much effort it takes to just be up and about," Tina W., a woman with hypothyroidism told Healthline. Likewise, don't tell your friend or loved one to just push through the pain, lose some weight, or eat healthier. Chances are, they've already tried everything to feel better. Listen to them, ask if there's anything you can help with, and be patient.

If you're planning a trip or social event, don't pressure your friend to come on board. Instead, tell them what you have in mind and let them know you understand their circumstances, suggests Creaky Joints. Don't get annoyed at them if they cancel plans at the last minute — perhaps they are having a flare-up or simply not feeling well.