If you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness, you surely recall the flood of emotions it lets loose. You struggle to keep perspective and often begin to imagine a wide range of fears flooding your mind. As much as people try to draw a line between mental and physical illness, the connection is real.
How real? Here’s one example: Someone diagnosed with diabetes has two to three times the risk of depression than those without diabetes. On top of that, as many as half of them never get diagnosed with and treated for depression. It’s almost as if folks can’t imagine having both at the same time.
How Chronic Illness Causes Psychological Effects
There are countless unique ways this can happen — depending on the person and their circumstances. But here are three connections to keep in mind:
- A physical illness may often cause many changes and impacts in your life, your life patterns, and relationships. Such changes have the potential to decrease your mental well-being. For example, intense fears and worry may arise.
- People with chronic illnesses are frequently prescribed medications that can bring out psychological side effects.
- Physical conditions like Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and multiple sclerosis, for example, can directly affect a person’s brain function. In turn, this has been found to increase one’s likelihood of developing depression.
How Does Someone Know If a Chronic Illness is Causing Psychological Effects?
It makes sense to get a mental health referral upon any diagnosis of a chronic illness. If you don’t immediately choose this path, please keep an eye out for red flags like:
- Feeling “off” or down daily for at least two weeks
- Not being able to get pleasure from hobbies or other activities you once enjoyed
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty with staying focused and concentrating
- Ongoing ruminating
- Unexplained aches, pains, and tension
- Appetite changes (up or down) with related weight loss or gain
- Relationship issues
- Not wanting to get out of bed in the morning
- Struggling with daily work and other basic responsibilities
- Mood swings, irritability, and angry outbursts
If you experience any of the above, seeing a mental health professional is highly recommended. A therapist, for example, can assess your medical history, your current illness, and how it’s all combined to impact your emotional well-being. This enables you to work as a team to choose new approaches and paths. In addition, you can learn how to complement all of your treatments with practical strategies like those listed below.
Self-Help Steps to Safeguard Your Mental Health When Living With a Chronic Illness
Start with the basics.
- Make healthy eating choices. This includes eating regular meals, choosing healthy snack options, and eliminating (or at least reducing) substances like alcohol and caffeine.
- Get daily exercise and physical activity if you are able to. No one will expect you to take up marathon running. It could be as simple as a daily walk to get started.
- Maintain regular sleep patterns. Try to get enough sleep along with keeping a consistent bedtime and wake-up time.
- Do not isolate yourself. Stay connected to your trusted circle of friends and family members. In addition, look into joining support groups. These can be in-person and/or online. Either way, you’ll be in touch with people who understand the struggle.
- If you enjoy the outdoors, find opportunities to be present in nature.
The key is to build resilience, confidence, and structure in your life. As daunting as a chronic illness be — not to mention possible related mental health concerns — you can be proactive in your behaviours and actions.
A giant step in this direction involves connecting with a qualified therapist. Your weekly or bi-weekly sessions (virtual or in-person) will be where you can learn more about the connections discussed above. From there, you will well-positioned with coping strategies to navigate the mental health effects of chronic illness.