The diagnosis of a chronic illness can alter a person’s life in more ways than one. It can cause changes in physical abilities, nutrition, sleep habits, and routines. Chronic illness can add doctor appointments, new medications, and treatments. It might also involve pain and fatigue, which makes the burden even more cumbersome.
It should come as no surprise, then, that up to one-third of people with chronic illness experience symptoms of depression. The risk is even higher among those with a history of depression. Clearly, some depressive symptoms can look similar to those of the chronic illness itself, so it can be difficult to differentiate between the illness and the depression.
Signs of depression include but are not limited to:
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Changes in sleep (more or less)
- Withdrawing from others/isolation
- Lack of pleasure in once-enjoyed activities
- Changes in weight (gain or loss)
- Frequent crying or tearfulness
- Suicidal thoughts or ideations
Further studies show that there is a correlation between mental health and pain. When a person is more anxious or depressed, more intense pain is reported. This is the mind-body connection at work! Researchers at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine found that people with better mental health felt less pain, and people with compromised mental health felt more. So it seems that managing depressive symptoms could help improve physical health—and who doesn’t want to feel less pain?
If you’re feeling depressed, try these tips to improve your mental health:
- Get moving. Not only does exercise help keep stiff joints lubricated, it gets blood flowing to the brain, which can release endorphins and serotonin—“feel-good” chemicals. Engage in an activity that you enjoy and that will keep you coming back for more. Talk with your doctor about an exercise plan that may work for you.
- Talk about it. Find a psychotherapist, trusted friend, or clergyperson who is understanding and empathetic. Turning inward only stuffs sad feelings deeper, causing more emotional and physical pain. Talking about your depression can help release the negative energy and help you move toward acceptance.
- Challenge yourself. Find a new hobby or activity to enjoy. Learning a new skill can be distracting and fun, and it can build self-esteem and confidence, too.
- Be social. Although depression can make many people want to isolate, most people find that once they’re out with friends or family, they feel better. Surround yourself with supportive and accepting people and enjoy their company.
- Think positive thoughts. The mind-body connection shows us that if we feel depressed or anxious, the body feels more pain or fatigue. Changing negative thoughts to positive ones can decrease both physical and emotional pain.
Depression can be demoralizing and zap motivation. If the preceding steps don’t help, or if your depressive symptoms become more intense or frequent, talk to your doctor. It can also be helpful to work with a therapist who is knowledgeable about the effects of chronic illness on depression.
- Depression and Chronic Illness Fact Sheet. (2009, January 9). Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Mental_Illnesses/Depression/Depression_Chronic_Illness_FactSheet2009.pdf
- Nauert, Rick. “Arthritis Pain Depends on Mental Health.” PsychCentral. (2010, August 2). Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2010/08/02/arthritis-pain-depends-on-mental-health/16293.html
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