Mind, Body, and Spirit: How a Chronic Illness Impacts Your Mental Health
Being sick is hard enough. It interferes with your work. It disrupts your plans. It impacts your relationships.
But what if you knew that your sickness wasn’t going to get better? What if you had to face the reality that this is probably as good as it’s going to get? What if, in fact, the chances were pretty good that your health is going to deteriorate in the coming years, and there’s really nothing you or your doctors can do to stop it?
That’s the reality that the estimated 157 million Americans currently living with chronic illness must face each and every day. But living with a chronic illness affects more than your physical health. It also takes a profound toll on your mental health as well.
Read on to learn more about the connections between chronic illness and mental health, and the steps you can take to nurture yourself in body, mind, and spirit.
What is Chronic Illness?
Most of the illnesses we will face throughout the course of our lives are acute. That means that they are relatively short-lived. They come and go, sometimes without treatment, but more often with it.
But a chronic illness settles into your life like an unwanted houseguest who just won’t go away. There may be treatments to manage the symptoms or the progression of the disease, but there’s nothing — no drug, no surgery — that’s going to get rid of it entirely.
The best you can do is try to control or mitigate your condition. Learn to live with it, and hold out hope for some sort of remission. That, though, is far easier said than done. Living with a chronic illness can make you feel helpless, scared, and out of control, and that puts you at greater risk for mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
When you are battling a chronic illness, the first order of business is to attend to your physical health. This often means finding a care provider whom you trust, someone you feel comfortable with, someone you can see yourself partnering with in the long fight ahead.
Because the simple fact is that caring for a chronic illness is far different than caring for an acute one. It is important to surround yourself with a healthcare team that has the long-game in mind, a team that has the commitment, vision, mission, and expertise to help you build the future you want and deserve, regardless of your diagnosis.
Putting together the right healthcare team is about more than cultivating your physical health to the highest possible degree. It’s also about giving you the peace of mind in knowing your trusted team has your back. Battling chronic illness can feel incredibly isolating.
But knowing that your team understands you and is fighting for you even when you don’t have the strength, will, or energy to fight for yourself can be your greatest defense against depression and anxiety.
Stress — sometimes massive stress — is pretty much inevitable when you are battling a chronic illness. But it’s imperative to find coping strategies to help you manage your stress.
All that worry and anxiety are not only robbing you of your inner peace. They’re also savaging your physical health and, in all likelihood, exacerbating your illness.
Prolonged stress, for example, puts you at significantly higher risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. Stress also wreaks havoc on your adrenals, causing your body to pump out stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
But your body can only produce so much cortisol before it is depleted, resulting in adrenal fatigue syndrome. And when your body goes into adrenal fatigue, you’re now exposing yourself to a whole host of new problems, both physical and psychological.
You’re likely going to experience fatigue and muscle and joint pain. You’re going to be anxious and depressed, and your immune system is going to be weakened. All that leaves you much more vulnerable to further sicknesses, and thus a vicious cycle is created.
That’s why managing stress is so important for both your mental and physical health. Take time each day to decompress and do something you love. Get out in nature, if you can. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones who make you laugh and give you comfort.
Practice journaling, mindfulness, and meditation to help you refocus and calm yourself. Begin and end each day by making a list of all the things you are grateful for. These few simple changes can help you build an entirely new mindset in which stress, anxiety, and sadness no longer have control or dominion.
Recognize Additional Risks
When you are facing a chronic illness, you’re not only at high risk for mental illness, but you are also liable to experience a number of other challenges that might not seem to be related but absolutely are. These are typically referred to as “co-occurring disorders.”
One of the most common disorders co-occurring with mental illness is substance abuse and addiction. When you are depressed and anxious, as so many people with chronic illness are, you’re going to be looking for comfort. That’s just human nature. It’s understandable.
But often, the quickest, easiest, and most effective way to get that comfort is to reach for that bottle of pills or raid that liquor cabinet. You might not even recognize how often you are doing it or how dependent you have become. You may only be aware of the need for relief and the hope that your substance of choice will provide it.
It’s not only the co-occurring disorder of addiction that you need to be on guard against. Chronic illness and its related mental health impacts can also put you at high risk for illness anxiety disorder.
Having a chronic illness is naturally going to make you more vigilant about your health. In a lot of ways, that is a good thing. Self-monitoring is crucial to self-care when you have a chronic disease.
But there is a limit, a point where vigilance becomes hypervigilance, where self-care turns into self-destruction, where self-monitoring spills over into hypochondria. Suddenly, every little bodily change is a symptom of the progression of your disease. Every little ache or pain is a sign of a new illness.
This is why enlisting outside professional help is so important. Turning to a qualified therapist or counselor can help you keep perspective. They can help you recognize signs of trouble, from depression to addiction to hypochondria, and develop intervention strategies to protect you from these threats.
They can help guide, coach, and encourage you in creating the life you want, in protecting and nurturing your mind, body, and spirit. They can help you to find a joyful and fulfilling life both outside or and with your illness. They can help you to remember both that you are more than your illness and that your illness is a part of you.
By cultivating both your physical and mental health, you can live purposefully and peacefully even in the face of chronic illness. You can turn your pain into power; test into testimony; misfortune into meaning.
Guest Writer Bio
Beau Peters is a creative professional with a lifetime of experience in service and care. As a manager, he’s learned a slew of tricks of the trade that he enjoys sharing with others who have the same passion and dedication that he brings to his work.