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Functioning & Thriving in College with a Chronic Illness

As a college freshman with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, I’ve had my fair share of struggles adjusting to college life with a chronic illness. To my surprise, I’ve met more people in my first three weeks of college with chronic illnesses than I’d met in my entire life.  From personal experience and peer advice, I’ve learned how to prioritize my physical health while balancing social life and academics. Here are some of the effective strategies I recommend using.


1. Get ahead of your work before midterms and finals.

This can’t be stressed enough. Look at syllabi for classes to see those upcoming assignments and get to it. When you’re having a better day, go ahead and do more work. Don’t stress, but get as far ahead as you can. I like to be about one week ahead in my classes. When you have a flare up, you will have extra time to recover without the stress of upcoming assignments.


2. Don’t be afraid to get help. 

When I first came to school, I was reluctant to apply for academic accommodations. Though I had accommodations in highschool, I wanted to try to perform well academically without them. I didn’t want to need them. Looking back, I don’t know what I would’ve done without pursuing accommodations. Having support both within and outside of the classroom has made my college transition as a freshman significantly smoother. Don’t be afraid to get help, even if you think you may not need the same support anymore. Academic accommodations are optional to use. So maybe you’re feeling good most weeks and don’t need to use the support; however, you never know if and when a flare up in symptoms may come. Getting accommodations will prepare you for the worst. It’s better to be safe than sorry. 


3. Sleep, sleep, sleep!

This is one of the hardest things to achieve in college. Working ahead in classes (as mentioned above) can help you avoid those all nighters. Healthy college students crash after a late night of working, so you cannot expect your body to be able to run on no sleep. Most college students need sleep, but even more so when you have a chronic illness influencing your day to day life.



4. Reach out.

 Talk to friends, reach out to your school’s academic support center, contact a professor or email a club. Do what you can to find a way to meet other people, on campus or off campus, who can relate to what you’re going through. And if you can’t find anything? Create a support group, make a Facebook page or develop a club on campus! Be the leader of your success. Finding or creating a place to meet people who can relate to you can help calm some nerves. People may even have more advice on what you can do to feel like your best, healthiest self. 


5.  Be social, even if it’s hard.

 It is so easy to isolate yourself, especially when you don’t feel well. Balancing health and academics can be challenging as is, let alone fitting in any time for a social life. Maybe you’re unable to stand for long periods of time or can’t eat the pizza that your friends are grabbing. Try as best as you can to work around this. Being social may not be the perfect experience and you may have to make compromises. Eat before you go out with your friends to the pizza place, pull over a chair or sit on a curb. It may not be perfect, but getting out there and socializing is mentally uplifting. Dance around to “Truth Hurts” with your gals and scream out those lyrics– even if you have to sit down from the dizziness afterwards.

Remember it’s okay to not feel okay. Anyone with a chronic illness knows that everyday is going to have something that doesn’t feel right. Some days are easier, and some days are harder. No matter how much you prepare, some difficult days are unavoidable. I don’t think these tips will get rid of these bad days, but hopefully, these tips will help make those rough days a little less rough. Put on some Gilmore Girls, grab those painkillers, throw on some PJs and make the most of your bad days. 


Photo 1, 2, 3



Seren Becker

American '23

Seren is a freshman CLEG major at American University. Seren is a photojournalist whose work has been exhibited in the ICP museum in New York City, as well as in Photoville, where she was also a panelist for Teen Storytellers Impacting Change.
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