If you have been living with a serious disease, your life often revolves around your illness. While that is a normal response, it’s important for your mental health and quality of life to see your malady as just one of the characteristics that make you you.

For the past 10 years, Harvard physician Annie Brewster, MD, has dedicated herself to the craft of storytelling as a therapeutic tool for facing illness. Integrating your health challenge into your self-story as part of you but not all of you can help you become more resilient.

Dr. Brewster has used storytelling tools to navigate her own MS diagnosis. For years, she lived in denial and told few people about her diagnosis. But when she started having symptoms, she had to accept that she had MS. Once she admitted it to herself and others, she found she needed to rewrite her own story to integrate her “brokenness” into her sense of self. Here’s how to reframe your personal story to expand your perspective beyond your illness…

Acknowledge your diagnosis. When you deny a diagnosis, you may get mired down trying to hide your challenges. Integrating your disease, trauma or disability into your life is not easy, but once you stop denying you’re sick, you can begin to get unstuck.

Define yourself as a person with a disease—not as the disease itself. In the past, medical professionals would describe people with diseases as “cancer patients” or “MS patients” or “diabetes patients.” That terminology has fallen out of favor and for good reason—the sum total of who we are is more than just our physical health. Better: Define yourself as a person with cancer, MS or diabetes. That psychological shift can make a big difference in your outlook.

Learn to live with uncertainty. For Dr. Brewster, the scariest part of living with MS is not knowing how her disease will affect her over time. She has been able to manage her symptoms, but she doesn’t know how her disease will progress. Initially, the unpredictability terrified her, but she learned to focus on what was in her control—her frame of mind.

Think about your health issue in a new way. Ask yourself…

What can I control in this frightening time?

What are my personal strengths, and how have these strengths helped me to survive?

What can I do to help others in need?

Who has been there for me?

How has this experience strengthened my relationships?

What have I learned, and how have I changed for the better?

Write your story to help transform your perspective. Use what you’ve learned to compose a story that reflects on the most challenging aspects of your experience. Keep revising it until you get to the very core of your experience.

Connect with others to tell your story. Many people are hesitant, even ashamed, to share their stories. But being open about your experience can make you feel less alone and more hopeful that you will find a way forward. You can learn from others’ experiences, and you will realize that you are not the only one facing a major health challenge. Telling your story can help you emerge from your experience whole, with new strength, perspective and self-awareness…and a deeper connection to other people.

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