Psychology Can Help You Cope With Physical Illnesses

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When faced with physical illnesses, the focus is often on medical treatments. However, psychological strategies can play a pivotal role in coping with the challenges that come with such conditions. Health isn’t just about our bodies. When we’re dealing with physical illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, our mental health is often affected too. This complex connection forms the core of health psychology.

Understanding Health Psychology: Health psychology, also known as behavioral medicine, is a field that focuses on how behaviors, thoughts, and emotions can affect physical health. It provides strategies to improve health outcomes and quality of life for those dealing with physical illnesses such as chronic diseases, acute health conditions, or preparing for surgical procedures.

Understanding the Interplay of Physical Illness and Mental Health: Physical illnesses can bring about significant changes, not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally. Chronic illnesses can lead to a disruption of life plans and routines, a decrease in quality of life, and sometimes a shift in self-perception and self-esteem. These changes can often lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.

Deep Impact of Physical Illnesses on Mental Health include:

  1. Changes in Daily Life: If someone gets sick, they might need to start doing things they didn’t have to before, like taking medicine, going to doctor’s appointments, or doing exercises to feel better. Also, some illnesses can make people feel very tired, which makes it harder to get stuff done. For example, if someone who loves hiking gets arthritis and can’t walk as easily, they might feel sad or even depressed.
  2. Changes in Career Plan: Being sick can also change how a person works. They might need to take lots of time off, change their work hours, or even switch jobs if their job requires lots of physical effort. Imagine a financial analyst with a progressive eye disease such as macular degeneration. This condition damages the central vision, making it difficult to see fine details. Over time, even with the use of corrective lenses or magnifiers, reading physical documents and digital screens can become an arduous, if not impossible, task. This poses a significant challenge, given the visual nature of this work.
  3. Stress and Anxiety: When we’re told we have a serious health condition like cancer, it’s normal to feel scared and anxious. We might worry about what will happen in the future, how our loved ones will cope, or about the side effects of treatment. The stress and anxiety can also lead to more severe mental health problems like depressive disorder and anxiety disorders.
  4. Physical Pain: Chronic pain from conditions like fibromyalgia can lead to feelings of anger or frustration. Over time, the constant pain can even lead to depression. Click here to read more about chronic pain.
  5. Self-Image: Visible changes to our bodies from conditions like psoriasis can affect how we feel about ourselves. We might feel embarrassed or want to avoid social situations, which can lead to feelings of loneliness or depression.
  6. Feeling Alone: Chronic illnesses, like multiple sclerosis or heart disease, can make us feel isolated or misunderstood, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. Another example would be, if a person loves playing soccer with friends, but they get asthma, which makes it hard to breathe, they might not be able to play anymore.
  7. Trauma: Picture someone who has experienced the traumatic loss of a loved one in an unexpected accident. They managed to cope over time, but the trauma still lingers. Now, this person is diagnosed with a serious heart condition requiring immediate surgery. The suddenness and severity of their illness might trigger memories of their previous sudden loss. The hospital environment, the fear of surgery, and the uncertainty about the outcome might cause a resurgence of trauma symptoms. They may experience heightened anxiety, difficulty sleeping, or even flashbacks related to the initial traumatic event.
  8. Personality Traits: Think of someone with a very rigid personality trait. They’re organized, meticulous, and like to have things in order. They plan their days down to the last detail and find comfort in predictability. Now, imagine they are diagnosed with a chronic condition like rheumatoid arthritis. This illness is unpredictable, with periods of remission and flare-ups. The unpredictability of their symptoms can be significantly stressful for someone who thrives on order and predictability. They might experience heightened stress, anxiety, and find it harder to cope with their diagnosis because it’s so at odds with their usual way of managing the world.
  9. Family Conflict: Dealing with a physical illness can put a lot of stress on family relationships. For instance, a person diagnosed with a chronic illness may need to rely on their family for support and care. If there’s already a history of conflict or tension in the family, the added pressure and change in dynamics can exacerbate these issues. This could lead to increased stress, anxiety, or depression for the patient.

How Our Minds Can Impact Our Bodies:

The way we feel mentally can also have a big impact on our physical health:

  1. Weaker Immune System: Stress and depression can weaken our immune system, making it harder to recover from illnesses. This is especially true for people with conditions that already affect the immune system, like lupus.
  2. Unhealthy Habits: When we’re feeling low or anxious, we might turn to unhealthy habits like eating junk food, not exercising, or smoking. These habits can make physical health conditions like diabetes worse.
  3. Not Following Medical Advice: Feeling depressed or anxious can make it harder for us to stick to our treatment plans. This can be particularly harmful for conditions like high blood pressure, which can be well-managed with medication.

How Health Psychology Can Help:

Health psychology offers ways to break this cycle, helping us manage both our physical and mental health better:

  1. Comprehensive Stress Management: Health psychologists teach techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness, and progressive muscle relaxation. These methods help control stress levels, reducing the strain on our bodies and improving overall well-being. For instance, stress management is particularly crucial for heart disease patients, as high stress can exacerbate heart problems.
  2. Effective Pain Management: Health psychologists employ principles and techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and clinical hypnosis to manage chronic pain. They teach patients to reframe negative thoughts, use distraction techniques, and employ relaxation methods. These strategies can significantly improve the quality of life for people with conditions like osteoarthritis.
  3. Improving Treatment Adherence: Health psychologists can help patients better understand their treatment plans and address any fears or misconceptions. They also assist in setting up routines, making medication management more straightforward. For example, people with asthma or diabetes can greatly benefit from this guidance, ensuring their conditions are well-managed.
  4. Promoting Healthy Lifestyle Changes: Health psychologists help patients set realistic goals for improving their lifestyle, such as healthier eating, regular exercise, and better sleep. They provide motivation, strategies for overcoming hurdles, and ongoing support. These changes can drastically improve physical health, particularly in conditions like obesity or diabetes.
  5. Providing Psychotherapy: Health psychologists are there to provide psychotherapy, helping patients process feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, fear, loss, or traumatic response related to their illness. They also equip patients with coping strategies to handle these emotions. For those who have to change their life plans due to physical illnesses, health psychologists can help them explore new life directions and meanings, learn how to live with physical illnesses (chronic illnesses in particular), and act effectively to live a fulfilling life despite physical illnesses.
  6. Supporting Families: Health psychologists also work with families, providing education about the condition and equipping them with ways to support their loved one effectively. In illnesses like Alzheimer’s, where the family’s role is paramount, this support can make a significant difference.

Conclusion: Managing physical health conditions involves more than just medicine—it’s about taking care of our minds too. Health psychology provides the tools to navigate these complex challenges and can play a pivotal role in enhancing overall health. However, always remember to consult with a healthcare provider for personalized advice and treatment strategies.  

Click here to have a 10-minute free phone consultation with Dr. Houyuan Luo, a registered counselling/clinical and health psychologist in Toronto, Ontario.   

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