A chronic illness is a long-term health condition that currently has no cure. These conditions can usually be managed by medication and other treatments to improve quality of life. The wide-ranging impact of these conditions however can affect mental health.
What is chronic illness?
Also known as chronic conditions, chronic illness is believed to affect more than 15 million people in England alone. These are long-term conditions or disabilities that are likely to affect someone for their whole life. Such conditions include asthma, endometriosis, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, epilepsy and arthritis. While most chronic illnesses have no cure, there are treatments that can help to manage the condition, helping to relieve pain and improve quality of life.
Being diagnosed with and living with a chronic illness can take its toll emotionally. It can affect many areas of your life, forcing you to change your vision of the future and make lifestyle adaptations. Living with the day-to-day struggles can be wearing too, from coping with pain to dealing with stigma and everyday ableism. All of this can, understandably, have an effect on mental health.
How can chronic illness affect mental health?
According to the Mental Health Foundation, research shows that those with chronic illness are more than twice as likely to develop mental health concerns. Here are some factors that may contribute to this.
The journey to diagnosis isn’t easy for some. There can be long waiting lists and, depending on your condition, you may need to advocate for yourself to be heard and supported by medical professionals. It can take time to get the right diagnosis, and trying to manage the logistics of medical appointments and tests while coping with symptoms can be tiring and leave you feeling low.
Coping with the diagnosis
Getting a diagnosis of a chronic illness in itself can also be difficult. Depending on the condition, there may be no cure or remission possible, meaning you’ll live with it for the rest of your life. Coming to terms with this can trigger a number of emotions. You may feel anger, frustration, sadness, relief to know what it is and anxiety about what’s to come.
Living with chronic illness
Having a diagnosis can be helpful as it paves the way for treatment and support to help manage the condition. There are elements of living with a chronic illness that can affect your mental health, however. You may be dealing with ongoing pain and other unpleasant symptoms. Some medications also have side effects, with some impacting mental health.
Coming up against discrimination and stigma can also negatively impact your well-being. Depression and anxiety are common mental health conditions that can surface, though other unhealthy coping mechanisms may come up, such as self-harm, disordered eating, OCD and substance abuse. While mental health problems are more common in those with chronic illnesses, support is available.
Everything hurt all the time, I had constant headaches. I was getting really confused by the simplest tasks and was going to bed pretty much as soon as I got in from work. My work was suffering, too. It all just felt too overwhelming.
Chronic illness counselling
Speaking to a counsellor can help you understand the emotional impact of chronic illness, helping you cope better mentally. There are various therapies that may be helpful, however, two types that are commonly recommended are cognitive behavioural therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
The aim of CBT is to help you understand how the way you think, feel and behave are related. Encouraging positive self-talk and addressing negative thought patterns, CBT can be a helpful approach for those with depression and anxiety. For those with chronic illness, CBT can help you spot negative thinking, so you can regain a sense of control over how you react to your symptoms.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
In a similar way to CBT, ACT encourages you to learn more about and understand your illness. The aim is to help you accept your reality and commit to positive action, without fear holding you back. While CBT seeks to help you change the way you think, ACT looks to help you accept negative thoughts and not shy away from them. For some, this is empowering, helping them to accept their symptoms and know that they can still lead a fulfilling life.
Other approaches that could be beneficial for chronic pain and illness include mindfulness and music therapy. If you’re unsure what would be best for you, it may help to speak to your doctor or a therapist to learn more about each approach. Often the simple act of having someone to talk to can be beneficial in itself.
I do not believe that counselling can, in any way, repair the ‘problem’ of disability because it isn’t of the individual's making, but what counselling can do is walk beside someone as they explore how society disables them and the associated emotions.
Feeling supported can go a long way in overcoming the isolation you may feel, living with chronic illness. Talking to friends and family about how your chronic illness affects you can help them understand and be in a better position to support you.
You may also benefit from joining a support group, where you can meet and chat with others who live with the same (or similar) conditions. This can be a nice way to learn how others cope and help you feel more connected to others.
Try reaching out to an organisation that supports people with your condition to learn more about support groups and don't be afraid to try different ones until you find the right fit. The aim of support groups should be to feel connected and hopeful, so take care to find one that offers this for you.
Self-care is also an important part of managing your well-being. Helping you take time for yourself and reduce stress, self-care practices can help you find a slice of calm and relaxation in your day-to-day life. As well as helping your overall well-being, self-care can support you as you undergo counselling, helping you make the most of your work here.
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