6 Reasons that a Chronic Illness can Affect Your Mental Health
Chronic illnesses affect all areas of your life, including your mental health. The journey is filled with highs and lows, ultimately making it harder to stay in a positive headspace. Let’s talk about how your chronic illness and mental health work together.
The Connection with Chronic Illness and Mental Health
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “six in ten Americans live with at least one chronic disease.” Medical experts also say that you are more likely to develop a mental illness based on the severity of symptoms from your specific chronic illness.
Here are five reasons that your chronic illness affects your mental health.
#1. Worry about Your Life
“Am I going to die from this? Will I be able to keep working or going to school? What about my family? What will my life look like now?” These are all common questions that may have run through your mind after initially being diagnosed with your chronic illness.
All of the unknowns about your life and health when you first get diagnosed are scary to think through. The fact you won’t have certain answers about your health until you experience it naturally brings on a sense of worry. Like many people, you’d rather know as much as you can ahead of time so that you feel more prepared… That makes you human.
There’s nothing wrong with researching and reading to learn more about how to live with your chronic illness. In fact, I highly recommend that.
The challenge with your mental health comes when that desire for answers turns into constantly researching (or going down the “black hole” as I call it). Your mind becomes so focused on the “problems” that you can start to assume the worst in most situations just to prepare yourself and feel more in control.
Unfortunately these tendencies increase worry and make you feel worse and less in control over time.
#2. Waves of Sadness
Have you ever noticed that there are days when you’re just “not feeling it,” not as motivated and would rather just lie down? Or maybe you feel down but try to cover it up everyday and tell everyone how “fine” you are just to get through the day? These are all common responses when feeling sad after receiving a chronic illness diagnosis.
Your feelings of sadness are completely valid. Those feelings are usually a sign that you are disappointed and upset with how things are turning out for your health right now, and you want things to be better (even when sometimes, it won’t).
It’s normal to feel waves of sadness after your chronic illness diagnosis, but it could turn into depression if the feelings persist more than a few months.
Chronically ill people are at higher risk for experiencing depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The changes that you endure with your body are exhausting, and you can feel limited with what you can do sometimes. Perhaps in those moments you feel like life is moving on without you, because your health requires you to live life differently than everyone else.
Here are some situations that contribute to chronically ill people feeling depressed:
- Not recognizing yourself with your chronic illness
- Feeling limited with your abilities
- Making major changes in your lifestyle to support your health needs
- Missing out on social experiences
- Feeling unsupported/misunderstood by others in your life
- Having to stop doing things you enjoy because you are unable to do them
- Experiencing pain consistently
- Treatment plans don’t work as you’d hoped
- Feeling like you are a burden on others
- Staying home (or in bed) for prolonged periods of time as a result of your health
#3. Grief and Loss
There are many losses that you can face when living with a chronic illness (i.e., health, finances, relationships, independence, sense of self). The losses alone can take a toll on your mental health. The grief comes in the forms of reminders of the past, present and future.
I personally miss considering myself a “morning person” in the past. Each morning serves as a reminder of what used to be, and I now focus on supporting myself every day with needing more time and patience in the mornings. It’s possible to accept what has changed, but it’s normal for that to be hard at first.
Grieving the present often happens when your health interferes with something happening now (i.e., not going into work, canceling plans, experiencing a flare). You literally have to sit with what’s happening at that moment, and it can bring on much pain, sadness and even anger.
In my experience counseling chronically ill teens and adults who are grieving loss of life goals (i.e., traveling, careers, going to college, having children, etc.), their health makes it harder for them to do those things that mean so much to them. Things that make up a huge part of how they see themselves.
The future can seem bleak and scary as you grieve your life with a chronic illness, because the plans you had for your future may not happen (or you worry that it won’t). It’s hard to keep hope when you’re not sure if you’ll enjoy your life anymore.
#4. Anger with your body and other people
If you are chronically ill, you understand the frustration that comes when your body does not respond how you want or need it to. You experience days when you don’t feel well enough to do things you want. Or you notice when you no longer can do certain things because your illness has progressed to a certain level.
It is such an emotional experience when you want to be in another body because you feel your own body has failed you. Meanwhile you see other people around you living their “best life” (the comparisons become even more noticeable).
On top of the anger towards your body, there are people you encounter in your life that don’t understand your chronic illness or what you experience to keep going everyday. Some of these people are family members, friends, employers and even medical providers (yep, them too).
That can bring on feelings of anger and resentment.
The constant bouts of anger can build stress levels, feelings of helplessness and even despair. All of these emotions can lead to a decline in your mental health if you don’t find ways to support yourself along your journey with a chronic illness.
#5. Feeling socially isolated
You can easily begin to feel socially isolated from others without intentionally doing so. Many chronically ill people spend time indoors attending to their health, unable to participate in certain social activities.
This change of social connection can make you feel like you’re missing out on things. Over time many of my own clients have expressed feeling sad that they have been “left behind” or “forgotten about” by people they care about the most.
One of the most important needs of a chronically ill person is to feel supported and understood. It is what helps you feel motivated, loved and considered even on the hardest days. However, depression is most likely to increase when you are isolated and alone.
#6. Stress from medical symptoms
Chronic illnesses bring on many different symptoms (both visible and invisible). Whether you are living with fatigue, chronic pain, brain fog or other symptoms, it can all interfere with your life and the ability to feel motivated on any given day.
Your health symptoms can create high stress from constantly needing to consider if you feel well enough to do things in your life, even the basic things like hygiene activities. Depending on the severity of your health condition, it can lead to hospitalization, disability and even death.
Also, certain illnesses change your body chemistry and lead to depression and anxiety. With that being said, it’s important to know that you have every right to feel upset about your health symptoms impacting your life.
Your chronic illness is not your fault, and it makes sense that you feel stressed about it.
Check out my blog post to learn how to cope with emotions during a chronic illness flare.
Create a Balance with Your Chronic Illness and Mental Health
The unknowns and challenges that come with a chronic illness can become emotionally and physically challenging. However, it’s possible to create a balance in your life by making a medical and mental health care plan.
Medical treatment alone is not enough to address the issues that come up with your health. It is equally important to prioritize your mental health, too. Making your mental health a priority allows you to feel joy and more hope even on days when you physically feel your worst.
There are also many chronically ill people who have expressed feeling more relief of certain medical symptoms (i.e., chronic pain) when they learn more ways to relieve anxiety, improve their mood and deal with other life issues that come up.
You can experience this, too.
Next Steps for Chronic Illness Management
I help individuals and families who are living with chronic illnesses and the emotional toll that it can bring. Therapy is a powerful tool that can help you continue talking about your chronic illness in a safe space. Although your journey with a chronic illness can be hard, therapy can make it more bearable because you get to practice having those conversations during the therapy session, giving you more confidence and improving your mental health.
You can schedule your first appointment with me by booking a free 15-minute consultation call.