Health issues affect almost everyone at some point in their lives. People may develop an illness themselves or indirectly experience illness through a friend or family’s condition.
Illness can be classified as acute, chronic, and/or terminal diseases. Acute illnesses often appear suddenly and last a short time (Example: a flu episode). Chronic illnesses are conditions that last a long time and often require ongoing medical care (Example: epilepsy). Terminal illnesses have no cure and will likely cause death within several months or years (Example: late-stage cancer).
The onset of medical health issues may contribute to feelings of sadness, anxiety, depression, and/or anger. A mental health professional may be able to help individuals cope with any challenges that arise as they face a difficult or debilitating illness.
SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH
No person is an island. Everyone exists in a wider social and cultural structure that affects their health. Some of the many ways social factors affect health include:
- Access to health care. Some people have access to better health care than others. Preventative care and early treatment can reduce the risk of developing or dying from serious illnesses. People who cannot afford health insurance tend to have worse health. People who live in regions with poor access to quality providers may not receive good care. Some people may not seek health care because of fears about the quality of care they will receive.
- Access to lifestyle factors that promote good health. People who live in food deserts may struggle to eat nutritious food. Families with limited finances may not be able to afford quality food. A person with limited time may be unable to exercise.
- Exposure to dangerous substances. Toxic substances such as lead, air pollution, and asbestos can cause serious health issues. People in poor communities tend to be exposed to more pollution and other contaminants.
- Bias in healthcare. Health care providers may have unconscious biases that can affect treatment quality and outcomes. For example, research shows that doctors tend to dismiss women’s pain. Women wait longer to see doctors in emergency rooms, and they are less likely than men to have their case classified as urgent.
- Cultural norms and attitudes about medical care. Communities can have different understandings of which symptoms are normal and how best to treat them. For instance, a devoutly religious community may recommend praying about a symptom before seeking health care. Some communities are inherently distrustful of medical providers. A parent who has not vaccinated their child, for instance, may be reluctant to admit that fact to a health care provider.
- The impact of oppression. Members of marginalized communities tend to receive lower quality health care and thus have worse health. The daily stress of racism can also have long-term effects on the health of communities of color. Exposure to discrimination can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In turn, high cortisol levels can erode one’s health.
MIND-BODY CONNECTION: HOW EMOTIONS CAN AFFECT PHYSICAL HEALTH
Psychological challenges can directly and indirectly affect health. For example, research consistently shows a link between posttraumatic stress (PTSD), depression, and chronic pain. People with co-occurring physical and mental health issues may report more emotional symptoms and have worse health outcomes.
Stress is often a large mediating factor between emotional and physical health. It can weaken the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight illnesses and infections. Stress can also render the body more vulnerable to chronic ailments. For example, a 2009 study found that early-life stress changed the gut microbiome of rats, making them more vulnerable to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Psychological stress can also make it difficult to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Exercise can improve symptoms of a wide variety of health issues. It may even prevent health problems such as cardiovascular disease. Yet a person who is stressed may feel too overwhelmed or tired to exercise or try other lifestyle changes.
Psychological pain can even change how a person perceives physical pain. Research shows the higher a person’s stress levels, the less their bodies can regulate pain. In individuals with fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions, trauma can strongly affect how they experience pain.
The fact that pain can have psychological components does not mean a person is faking or exaggerating their pain. Instead, this pattern points to the many ways that the mind and body interact with one another. When the mind is in pain, the body often experiences pain too. Healing the mind can often bring some relief to the body.
HOW MEDICAL ISSUES CAN AFFECT YOUR EMOTIONS
A disease or injury may alter a person’s daily life in many ways. For example:
- A person may be unable to attend school or work for an inconvenient length of time. This can cause stress related to academic performance, job security, or finances.
- A person used to an active lifestyle may find it difficult to adapt to enforced inactivity. They may have elevated anxiety or irritability, especially if they use exercise as a coping mechanism.
- An illness or injury may leave a person confined in bed or to one room. This confinement may cause boredom or loneliness, especially when mental processes are not affected by the health issue.
- A person may require intensive or long-term care to survive. Some people may feel shame or regret around losing their independence.
- If a health issue has permanently restricted their activities, an individual may struggle to adjust to their new lives. They may have to rebuild an identity outside of the jobs or hobbies that used to define them.
Health issues can cause a person to feel helpless, hopeless, and frustrated. Emotions may run especially high if the prognosis is uncertain. This stress may cause a person to lash out at family and friends, which can put strain on relationships. Some individuals who are prescribed painkillers to cope with the illness may also experience dependency or addiction.
Any long-term illness can be difficult to cope with, but a terminal illness may be particularly challenging to face. In addition to the stress caused by present symptoms, a person will need to come to terms with what their future holds. Some may be paralyzed with grief. Others may hide or repress their feelings to avoid worrying friends and family.
A therapist can offer emotional support as a person prepares for the end of their life. They can also help families discuss difficult subjects such as finances and palliative care.
HOW ILLNESS CAN AFFECT CHILDREN
Children who are coping with a serious illness or a disability are twice as likely to experience emotional concerns or behavioral disturbances. It can be difficult for children to understand how their illness affects them or why they are sick. Young children will likely need help making lifestyle changes. They may cooperate with certain activities, such as physical therapy exercises, but resist other measures like insulin shots.
Health issues can also cause indirect effects. Ill children may face insensitive questions, bullying, or exclusion from peers. Children who miss school repeatedly due to illness or injury might also fall behind in class. If children need to repeat a grade, they may lose access to their peer group and develop low self-esteem.
CARING FOR A LOVED ONE WHO IS ILL
Sometimes family members need to provide long-term care for an ill loved one. Whether it is a temporary or permanent situation, caregiving can be a stressful job. When the responsibility of caregiving falls on one person, the job can be isolating and exhausting as well. Some caregivers develop complicated feelings of guilt, resentment, and depression. Caregiving can be especially challenging when a person is looking after both their adult parents and their children.
Families affected by one member’s chronic or serious illness often face financial issues. Health care can be expensive, especially if the former breadwinner is now unable to work. Family members can also feel intense anxiety, stress, and grief. As members attempt to cope, conflict may result.
Family conflict can often be reduced with the help of a mental health professional. Therapy may contribute to a better quality of life for the caregiver, the person who is sick, and any family members also involved.
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