Managing Mental Health

Managing Mental Health While Living With A Chronic Illness

There is a strong link between chronic physical illness and the development of mental health conditions. Living with a chronic physical disease can be psychologically draining, and studies show that psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety are more common among chronically ill patients. 

Around 50% of autoimmune disease patients experience decreased health-related quality of life and exhibited depression-like symptoms. Other studies suggest that people suffering from a chronic illness are up to twice as likely to develop depression and anxiety as their healthy counterparts.

Watch the video: Managing Mental Health While Living With A Chronic Illness

Ways Chronic Illness Can Affect Your Mental Health

While it’s normal to experience sadness, fear, and frustration after a chronic disease diagnosis, the disease progression can affect your mental health through different mechanisms.

Managing Mental Health

Hormone and Neurotransmitter Imbalances

Chronic pain can cause imbalances in hormones and neurotransmitters that help control our mood, alertness, and focus, such as GABA, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

GABA is an amino acid that helps regulate our central nervous system. When our neurons are overstimulated, they can cause anxiety. GABA’s primary function is to inhibit brain cell excitability.

Dopamine and Serotonin are commonly referred to as the “Happy Hormones” because they both play a crucial role in our positive moods and emotions. Dopamine helps regulate our rewards and motivation centers, while serotonin is associated with feelings of calmness, happiness, and focus.

Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that increases arousal, alertness, and focus during stressful times. However, increased levels of norepinephrine can disrupt our sleep-wake cycle, mood, and memory.

Chronic Inflammation Can Lead to Depression

New research data shows a link between depression and immunoregulatory processes such as chronic low-grade inflammatory response, cell-mediated immunity activation, and the anti-inflammatory reflex system (CIRS).

Additionally, scientists discovered that higher levels of cytokines – signaling proteins that help control inflammation in your body- induce depression-like symptoms.

Chronic Stress

Living with stress is a commonality among chronic disease patients. Starting with the initial diagnosis, causing shock, grief, and anger to the day-to-day uncertainty of what new challenges their condition might bring and the frustration of being misunderstood by friends and family.

These feelings are not evidence of having a mental health disorder. On the contrary, they are typical and expected. However, when experienced for extended periods, they add psychological stress to the already high levels of physical stress, increasing the risk of developing severe mental health conditions.

Recognizing the Signs of Depression and Anxiety

Mental health is one of our healthcare system’s most significant unmet needs. Yet, depression and anxiety are serious conditions that negatively impact treatment outcomes for many chronic diseases.

Because many symptoms may overlap with those of several chronic illnesses, recognizing the warning signs can be challenging.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety

  • Persistent feelings of sadness
  • Feeling hopeless or having an overly pessimistic outlook 
  • Feeling restless, irritable, or easily frustrated
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in once enjoyable activities
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of energy or feeling slowed-down
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things
  • Changes in sleep, such as early morning waking, sleeping too much, or difficulty falling and staying asleep
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Pain
  • Digestive problems with no apparent reason
  • Suicidal thoughts

Seeking Support

  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are common complications of chronic diseases, but effective treatment is available.If you are experiencing mental health issues related to your chronic illness, please discuss the following options with your doctor. They can offer valuable guidance in helping you manage your depression and anxiety.
  • Mental Health Treatment: Choose a licensed therapist with experience treating chronic disease patients. Therapy sessions provide a safe space to discuss your feelings without fear of judgment. A professional therapist can also help you learn ways to manage your emotions which can also help improve your physical symptoms. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants to help correct the hormonal and chemical imbalances which may contribute to your depression and anxiety.Occupational Therapy: An occupational therapist is a trained professional who can help you adapt your routine to your needs. They can work with you to develop strategies to help you manage your daily tasks. Additionally, they can offer advice on workplace adaptations and mobility aids.Support Groups: Joining an online or in-person support group of individuals with a similar condition offers invaluable benefits. First, it can make you realize you are not alone. Support groups also provide valuable insights into how to deal with different aspects of your condition, and sharing your experience and knowing this has helped someone else, can give you a renewed sense of purpose.

As we get ready to celebrate Mental Health Month, we urge you to reach out to your medical team and discuss your physical and emotional concerns. Remember, help is always available.

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