It is normal to experience a range of emotions in response to a new diagnosis, or when managing a chronic or terminal health condition. For example, you may experience grief and sadness as you adjust to various changes in your life or feel anxious about treatment and your future. Sometimes these concerns can be difficult to manage, impacting on your mental health. Talking to someone can help to navigate you through some of these difficulties, especially if you notice a significant decline in your mental health.

What are some of the common psychological difficulties associated with Chronic Health Problems?

  • Guilt and self-blame. Often people blame themselves for their condition. You may regret your past and believe you caused your illness. It is also common to feel you are letting others down. For example, you may feel guilty for reducing the level of support you provide your family. Additionally, you may view yourself as a “burden” to family and friends, and struggle to accept their care. Unfortunately, this can lead to thoughts about suicide, as self-worth is diminished.
  • Stress and pressure. Our society tends to focus on “staying positive” even in the darkest times. While being positive offers hope and happiness, it can also feel invalidating and lonely to someone who is suffering. For example, you may be going through a difficult time with your health, and subsequently feel sad, but find it difficult to share your experience with others who are focused on “staying positive”. Stress can also result from being overloaded physically and emotionally.
  • Anxiety. Chronic health conditions can be frightening given their unpredictable nature and impact on wellbeing. As such, it is common to feel anxious when thinking about ill health or when addressing health issues. Worry may become all-consuming, as you try to plan and prevent future health problems. Also, anxiety can be triggered by things that remind you of difficult past experiences – for example, your heart might race as you wait at your doctor’s reception. This can lead to avoidance of certain situations or things that trigger your anxiety – for example, you may avoid ringing the doctor’s clinic.
  • Learnt helplessness and feeling overwhelmed. You may fear taking on too much and worsening your health and therefore cut back on activities or social outings. For example, you may decide to drop one of your hobbies to reduce perceived pressure. However, the more we avoid things in life, the more we lose confidence in our abilities. This creates a vicious cycle, as reduced confidence can lead to avoidant behaviours. As well, if you are knocked off your feet due to illness, you may become susceptible to “learnt helplessness”, giving up on trying activities/tasks, due to the reoccurring experience of being helpless (because of illness).
  • Grief. Contrary to popular belief, grief does not occur in clear, defined stages. Everyone experiences grief differently, and any type of loss can trigger a grief response. Chronic health conditions can lead to several losses and associated grief. Grief involves many different emotions and stages, including anger, sadness, bargaining, denial, and acceptance. For example, it is common to feel angry and believe it is “unfair” that you have been burdened with ill health.
  • Chronic health issues can affect your self-esteem and confidence. You may feel part of your identity is missing, due to a change in focus and roles. For example, you may have stepped back from work or reduced the amount you do as a parent. As a result, you may feel devalued and unimportant.
  • Anger towards your body. You may feel betrayed and let down by your body.
  • Poor body image. Chronic health problems can impact the way we perceive our bodies. It is difficult to enjoy your body when intently focusing on how to “fix” or “change” your body for better health. An intense negative focus on our body can cause body image concerns. As well, chronic health problems can cause changes or damage to your body, which may be difficult to accept.
  • Difficulty managing pain. There is a large psychological component to pain: usually the more we want to get rid of pain, the more we tend to experience pain. Sometimes it can feel like whatever we do – distract ourselves, take painkillers, avoid using parts painful parts of our body – the pain does not go away! Understanding the complex relationship between pain and the mind can lead to pain relief.

How might psychological difficulties associated with Chronic Health Problems affect me?

  • Pain medication overuse. You may become dependent or reliant on prescription pain medication. You may over-use your medication, as you require higher doses to relieve your pain.
  • Unhelpful coping strategies. You may turn to unhelpful ways of coping to reduce or avoid distressing feelings associated with your chronic health issue. For example, you may over-use drugs or alcohol, or engage in promiscuous sex.
  • Social withdrawal and relationship strain. You may withdraw from others, due to reduced capacity to engage in regular activities; not wanting to be a “burden”; persistent pain; frequent medical appointments; or feeling that others lack understanding or care. You might also feel as though others avoid you because they do not know how to react or include you with some of your new restrictions. This can subsequently lead to jealousy, resentment, anger, bitterness, relationship strain, and social isolation.
  • Romantic relationship difficulties. A lot changes when a loved one is diagnosed with a chronic health condition. There can be a change in roles (for example, if you are unwell, you may need to stop working), financial strain, reduced intimacy, and a change in priorities (for example, if you are unwell, you may focus more on your health and your children’s future, rather than your partner). When someone is diagnosed with a chronic health problem their perspective and values naturally shift, which can come into conflict with their partner’s outlook on life.
  • Low mood and depression. Chronic health problems can lead to social withdrawal, a decrease in activities and study/work, pain and suffering, relationship difficulties, and sadness and anger. Such hardship can influence a low mood and depression.
  • Difficulty making decisions. Low confidence, uncertainty about the future and competing demands places immense pressure on the individual. As such, decisions can be experienced as confusing and overwhelming.

How can I manage the psychological difficulties associated with my Chronic Health Problem?

Several well-researched treatments are effective in managing psychological difficulties associated with Chronic Health Problems, including Cognitive-behavioural Therapy (CBT), Psychoeducation, Self-Help, Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

How can Peaceful Mind Psychology help?

We are compassionate, non-judgemental psychologists, who are experienced and trained in supporting individuals diagnosed with various chronic health issues and related difficulties. If you would like some professional assistance, contact us at Peaceful Mind Psychology.