The Toll of Chronic Disease On Emotional Health
When you suffer from never-ending illness or pain, it takes a heavy toll on your emotional well-being. The correlation between chronic disease and emotional health deterioration is one that is impossible to ignore or deny.
A condition that is considered chronic is one that persists for a long time (even indefinitely), may feature recurring episodes or flare ups, and is difficult (if not impossible) to eradicate.
In the United States, chronic diseases are the leading cause of death and disability. A whopping 7-of-10 leading causes of death are designated as chronic. Half of all American adults (approximately 117 million people) have one or more chronic health conditions right now.1
Some chronic diseases (particularly obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer) are preventable with a change in diet and lifestyle habits.
However, if you have a genetic condition or one triggered by circumstances outside your control, the journey through symptoms to testing to diagnosis to treatment options to finding workable solutions that help you can be an exhausting and frustrating experience.
Common Chronic Diseases and Conditions
- ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease)
- Alzheimer's disease and other dementias
- Asthma, COPD, and other respiratory conditions
- Behavioral disorders (schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, eating disorders)
- Crohn’s disease
- Cystic fibrosis
- Heart disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiac failure)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson's disease
- Renal (kidney) disease)
- Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis
- Ulcerative colitis
This is by no means a complete list. 2 3
With the explosion of food intolerance, chemical saturation, heavy metal exposure, and the copious toxins we absorb daily, there are countless patients who struggle to receive a proper diagnosis (who may initially receive the wrongdiagnosis) for their chronic symptoms.
Each of these diseases and conditions come with their own set of obstacles. What they have in common are stress and financial burden to the patients and their families.
There is still much we don’t know about many chronic diseases and disorders. As individuals are diagnosed, the medical community learns more about them (right along with the patient).
Emotional health and chronic disease are two halves of the same coin. Treatment of the physical body cannot neglect the protection of the patient’s emotional needs.
Health care professionals, mental health advocates, and the caregivers of those with chronic illness must not forget patient quality of life.4
When diagnosed with a disease, condition, or chronic illness, you’re instantly confronted ith overwhelming details. There might be changes to how you live, perhaps even where you live, medications, treatment, insurance issues, and the overall cost of living with the disease.
There is the coordination of those in your care (such as small children or elderly parents) and figuring out who can help care for you. Your body goes through so much physically, depending on the disease, and there might be urgent concerns about pain and basic medical management.
Mental health can end up on the back burner.
Researchers with the University of Queensland, Australia, listed three issues that affect mental and emotional health in chronic disease patients.
- The emotional dimensions of chronic conditions are often overlookedwhen medical care is considered a top priority.
- It can be difficult to diagnose depression in the medically ill but diagnosis and treatment are essential to total patient care.
- Doctors are well-equipped for the biomedical aspects of care but not the challenges of psychological, social, and cultural dimensions involved in illness.5
Due to its unpredictable nature, people diagnosed with a chronic disease experience fear, anxiety, depression, uncertainty, and so much more. The quality of your life changes drastically as medical issues take up many of your waking hours and thoughts.
The diagnosis can feel all-consuming. A support system of friends, family, and experts is crucial to helping you on the physical as well as the emotional battlefield.6
The Emotional Rollercoaster of Disease
- Anxiety: Patients naturally experience anxiety as they wait for diagnosis, treatment possibilities, cycle through medications, and try to maintain the life they lived prior to the disease. Feelings of dread, sadness, vulnerability, and even panic are common.
Anxiety affects your ability to be optimistic. Even low levels of anxiety are counterproductive to health so learning to manage your feelings of stress before they get out of control is crucial to your success.
- Depression: This is more than simply feeling “sad”. Patients may experience clinical depression as they endure the stress caused by disease. Fear, changes in daily routine, financial or legal concerns, grief, and intense feelings of sadness are normal reactions.
Depression can also be caused by anemia, hormone deficiency, vitamin deficiency, chronic pain, or medication side effects. Open communication with your family or talking to a mental health professional can help to relieve these real (and often emotionally contagious) feelings.
Some symptoms of depression to look out for are:
- Sadness, anxiety, or emptiness
- Feelings of isolation
- Anger or irritation
- Hopelessness or helplessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies you once enjoyed
- Feelings of guilt
- Being tired or unmotivated
3. Post-Traumatic Stress: Researchers discovered that those dealing with serious disease often have intrusive thoughts, heightened arousal, and avoidance behaviors. These are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Facing a life-threatening or life-altering illness – even when it’s being managed – can be a traumatic event for the patient and their loved ones. Emotional stress can remain high for months, even years, increasing risk of PTSD
One thing you must never forget is that you are not alone. Many are struggling with the impact of chronic disease on emotional health (their own and their loved ones).
Adding nourishing foods to your diet, increasing your movement (if possible), getting quality sleep, drinking plenty of water, and taking up meditation are ways to help you deal naturally with depression, anxiety, and other negative feelings associated with chronic sickness.
Talk therapy and prescription medications (antidepressants) are the mainstream medical approach to behavioral problems. Some patients respond well to these conventional techniques but it’s ultimately up to you to choose the treatment that works best in your specific situation.
Never ignore feelings of emotional distress or they can steadily worsen.
There’s no shame in asking for help. If you or someone you love is struggling with the emotional burdens caused by severe illness, talk to someone. A friend, family member, medical or mental health professional, religious leader, or even a local support group may provide relief.
While treating the signs, symptoms, and repercussions of chronic disease, your emotional health must not be neglected. The well-being of your mind is as important as the well-being of your body.
1 CDC: Chronic Diseases: The Leading Causes of Death and Disability in the United States
2 National Council on Aging: Top 10 Chronic Conditions in Adults
3 Mediscor Pharmaceutical Benefit Management: The Chronic Disease List
4 Journal of Clinical Epidemiology: The role of health care providers and significant others in evaluating the quality of life of patients with chronic disease: A review
5 American Psychological Association: Coping with a diagnosis of chronic illness
6 Turner J, Kelly B. Emotional dimensions of chronic disease. Western Journal of Medicine. 2000;172(2):124-128
7 Patient: How a chronic illness affects your mental health