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How chronic illness effects mental health




Written by Simon DuBois, Psychologist

Being under the load of a chronic health issue is emotionally and psychologically stressful in the extreme. It creates a lot of uncertainty and fear about how we will cope.

Our brains have been designed over millions of years to identify and ward off threats, but it really struggles to identify between external threats to our well being and those that come from within (worry). This deep concern about the impacts of a chronic health issue is an internal threat that needs to be managed a different way, not with the fight, flight or freeze response. The body and mind are stressed enough. It doesn’t need our defence system switching on to fight an invisible foe.

How do we know when we are under a stress response?

  • We fight – anger/irritability/grumpy

  • We flee – avoidance of people, of activities/anxiety/insecurity

  • We freeze – shut down/ depressed/despondent

These are all coping mechanisms for physical threats and they come at a price if not managed. One of these negative outcomes can be guilt and anger at ourselves when our stress is directed at those that are caring for us. We need to challenge them and one of the best ways to do that is talking with someone to make sense of our experiences and feelings.

This also has another important function. It allows us to do all our critical thinking, important worrying and reflecting at a designated time. Do all your worrying, confusing and frustrating in one place: with a psychologist. Outside of that time, put the brakes on it by letting your mind know you’ve done all the thinking and worrying you need to do for one day.

What does helpful worrying look like when you’re dealing with a chronic health condition? Firstly, it’s figuring out a clear plan of self-care and management of your health and making sure it’s in place.

Think about it like an assignment or a big challenge that’s been given to you. What does this assignment or challenge need to be dealt with effectively? Anyone with a major life assignment should never do it on their own. You deserve a team of people to work things out and support you. Be clear in your mind who these people are: friends, family, health practitioners, specialists, hospital, groups etc. Map it out on a piece of paper. Identify what their role is.

This analogy is for the guys. Imagine Daniel Ricardo was responsible for his own formula one races. He had to prepare the car himself, wheel it out onto the track, change his own tyres at pit stops and analyse his own driving stats. Crazy. Not going to work. You have a highly complex task ahead of you. Make sure you have a good team to support you in all parts of the challenge. Get your team together.

With this in place, when the worrying brain tries to fight or flee from the problem, it can be told it’s all is in hand. It’s being managed. Worrying will not help. Fighting won’t help. Fleeing won’t help. The threat is already being managed.

Once you have a clear map of care, the next most important task is noticing the brain is in that unhelpful place of worry and reaction. And then, when you’ve noticed your minds in that place it’s imperative to sooth and calm it! 

The number one strategy humans have when it comes to managing a threat is getting away from it, whether it be dangerous smells, dangerously high heat or aggressive people or animals. We calm down because we got away from the threat. But what we are dealing with is an internal and invisible threat: unhelpful and undermining thoughts. Our job in the immediate is to “get away from them” in some way. The simplest way to do this is distracting yourself. If your lying-in bed ruminating, get up and read your book. If you’re falling into a swirl of worries, steel yourself and go for a walk with your favourite music playing through your head phones.

Don’t dwell!!!!!!!!!!!

Do something that will help switch your bodily defence system down. It can’t fight a worry away with fists and anger. And it can’t run fast enough either. Notice, breath, stretch, and talk to yourself kindly.

But don’t ignore it either.

Is there something important to acknowledge? If not, and its just bad behaviour on your part then a stern self-talk is in order. But if there is a real issue: take it to a psychologist or counsellor to explore it. When it comes to a chronic health issue it may well be about:

  • Shock and disbelief

  • Anxiety and fear

  • Hopelessness and loss of control

  • Anger

  • Irritability and blame

  • Sadness, depression and loss

  • Guilt

  • Withdrawal and isolation

  • Dealing with the side effects of treatment

  • Dealing with changes that effect the way you want to live your life.

  • Financial worries

Express your feelings in a place and with a person that can make sense of them with you and manage them in a way that supports you and those around you.

Major health issues tend to force us to refocus our priorities and help us learn new habits and values for what’s important in our lives. As chronic illness can exist for years and can be physically and emotionally exhausting, having a supportive team around you can help you maintain your quality of life physically and emotionally.

Psychologists at The Health Lodge support clients in targeted interventions for specific issues such as anxiety and depression or other psychological issues that interfere with the quality of a person’s life. Learn more about our practitioners here or contact our Client Support Team on 02 6685 6445 for more information or book an appointment online. 

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