Many mixed emotions can converge when an individual is diagnosed with a chronic disease. While there is relief in having an explanation for the challenging symptoms, these types of diseases often have no cure – and that means that the individual’s life has now changed forever. The symptoms they experience, such as pain or fatigue, can only be managed and are likely to affect how the patient will approach their lives from that point onward.

Chronic diseases like arthritis, IBS, and fibromyalgia can cause recurring pain flare-ups and relapses that negatively impact the patient’s mental state while also adversely affecting dietary and health-related goals. These medical conditions can also cause emotional stress, reduce energy levels and increase mental fatigue, potentially leading to anxiety and depression. Because of the link between chronic disease and mental health, it is essential to take a closer look.

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Common causes of chronic pain and illness include:

  • migraines
  • back pain
  • General arthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
  • fibromyalgia
  • repetitive strain injury (RSI)
  • Crohn’s Disease or inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • cancer
  • spinal injuries
  • Diabetes
  • HIV
  • Parkinson’s
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • Lyme disease
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • heart disease

As these conditions may result in a significant life change, there is often an emotional aspect to the illness, but it is rarely considered at the time of diagnosis. However, those who receive these diagnoses are twice as likely to develop a mental health disorder.

When Mental Health is Compromised

There are many ways that mental health can be compromised when a person is living with a chronic illness.

Hormones: Many illnesses affect the body’s function by influencing the hormones and neurotransmitters, which can cause mental health changes should they become unbalanced. Hormones control emotions and an individual’s ability to stay stable within their environment. For their part, neurotransmitters help to manage moods and stress responses.

Social Engagement: Having a chronic illness can interrupt everyday routines and impair participation in daily tasks, some jobs, and leisure activities. Patients may have to miss school or work if their symptoms flare up, often causing the need to change accommodations for these things (such as virtual school and remote work.) Individuals may become increasingly isolated from peers and colleagues, inducing anxiety, stress, and depression.

Empathic Emotions: It is normal to pick up on the energy of those closest to us. When someone is sick, their loved ones may be scared or worried – and inadvertently cause even more negative emotions for the patient. When loved ones react to a diagnosis with excessive emotion, the stress can transfer to the patient – who, in turn, often wants to ease their loved one’s pain. Family members or loved ones may be in denial about the situation or trying to cope by avoiding contact or reducing communication, resulting in uncomfortable feelings for all involved. Conversely, tension and unhealthy boundaries could result if they are over-protective or hover with constant concern.

Positive Responses to Chronic Disease

While it may seem counter-intuitive, a chronic illness diagnosis can positively impact mental health as well. Facing a challenge can cause family members to draw closer together, resulting in a more tight-knit relationship. Discovering a new connection with family or friends can be the foundation of a safe and supportive environment to move forward.

No one wants to be sick, but it often brings out resiliency and inner strength that the patient never knew they had. People often find a greater sense of purpose, a new mission in life, or a new desire to help others.

Even with this positive outlook, facing a lifetime of medical hardship can be daunting for the most optimistic people.

When You Need Help

While a chronic disease necessitates focusing on physical health, emotional health is a vital aspect of life that cannot be ignored. Once your medical situation is stabilized, you may consider speaking with a mental health counselor. A compassionate professional can help you to navigate your new reality with hope and acceptance.

Denise Schonwald is a nationally certified mental health professional based in Sarasota, Florida.

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