Coping With a Disability: 9 Ways to Move Forward

It's not unusual to experience mental distress after the onset of a disability. Advocating for yourself and seeking support are important in the short and long term.

By , Journalist

One in four adults in the U.S. are living with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's 61 million people, or 26% of the adult population, not an insignificant number.

If you've recently been diagnosed with a permanent disability, you might find yourself struggling to adjust to your diagnosis. Or, if your disability isn't new, the ongoing stress of managing it can take a toll.

But on top of adjusting to and coping with life with a disability, you might also find yourself experiencing new or heightened mental health struggles. As you'll learn here, there are resources to help you move forward.

What Causes Mental Distress After Becoming Disabled?

There are many different types of disabilities, both physical and mental.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn't list them all, but defines an individual with a disability as "a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities."

It's not unusual for someone coping with a disability to experience sadness, frustration, worry, anger, or low self-esteem. According to the CDC, adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress (defined as 14 or more mentally unhealthy days in the past 30 days) almost five times as often as those without disabilities.

Someone who is newly disabled may have difficulty emotionally adjusting to their new normal, particularly when their disability prevents them from going about their daily activities as they once did.

Adults with disabilities are also more likely to live below the federal poverty level, which can affect their ability to access affordable health care and housing, and trigger negative thoughts and emotions.

Other factors that can increase mental distress in disabled individuals include:

  • living alone
  • low education levels, and
  • difficulty performing basic daily living activities.

And finally, the chronic stress from coping with a disability is linked to major depression.

How to Cope When You're Newly Disabled

Davina Tiwari, MSW, RSW, CSFT, is a registered social worker in Ontario, Canada, who works with adults with disabilities and chronic illnesses in her counseling practice, Meaningful Independence. She provides support to individuals, couples, and families learning to cope with a disability.

At the onset of a new disability, Tiwari says it's not unusual for a person to experience shock, feelings of anxiety, or a low mood.

"It's important to take some time to process what has happened," Tiwari explains. "They might feel like their whole world is being turned upside down, so it is completely understandable that they may feel anxious about the future or depressed about what they may have lost or what they may lose with this new disability."

Negative emotions might be even more pronounced if the disability is permanent and/or progressive in nature.

Tiwari recommends taking things day-by-day, especially in the early stages when there are so many uncertainties. Speaking with a mental health professional can help to support you during the adjustment phase and beyond, she added.

9 Ways to Move Forward With a Disability

Whether you're newly diagnosed with a disability or have been managing one for some time, there are ways to help you adjust and cope over the long term. Tiwari suggests using some or all of these techniques to support yourself as you move forward.

1. Take it slow.

You may be so focused on the next steps in the recovery journey that you forget to pay attention to what is needed in the present. Focus on the present and move on to your next steps at a pace that works for you.

2. Ask questions.

If you have a new disability, you probably have many questions. What is my diagnosis? What is the prognosis? How will this affect me long term? What are my risks? What precautions should I take? What can I do to help myself? Ask questions and make notes—or ask a loved one so you can focus on the conversation with your medical professional. Know that you may not get answers right away, as your situation may evolve over time.

3. Self-advocate.

While it can be difficult to speak up, no one knows you better than you. Raise your concerns, and learn how to direct others to help you so you feel safe and comfortable receiving assistance.

4. Set boundaries.

People in your social network may reach out to you after learning of your disability to hear how you are doing and ask how they can help. They may have the best intentions, but you and your loved ones may not have the emotional bandwidth to respond right away. It's okay to let them know that you need some time and will reply when you are ready. It's okay to not accept every visitor and ask to keep visits brief. Don't be afraid to say no. Rest is paramount for your healing and recovery.

5. Create realistic goals.

Use goals as a guidepost as you move forward following your diagnosis.

6. Manage your self-expectations.

Your expectations of yourself may be very high and, while it could be possible to achieve everything you are hoping for, it's also important to check in with your healthcare team to see if your expectations are realistic based on your prognosis.

7. Use positive self-talk.

Being kind to yourself is vital for staying motivated as you adjust to your new situation. Be your own cheerleader and demonstrate self-compassion if you don't succeed with a new skill on the first try. Making mistakes is part of learning and growth.

8. Focus on your abilities.

When you have a disability, it can be difficult to acknowledge what is going well. Your mind may focus on what you've lost. Reflect on what you still can do, independently or with help, and what aspects of yourself remain intact. You're still you. Your disability doesn't define you. You do.

9. Celebrate your successes.

Acknowledging what's working will help you maintain forward momentum, especially when you feel like giving up. Stay focused on your gains, no matter how small. Little steps can add up and make a difference in your overall quality of life.

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