Physical and mental health are often closely linked. When someone develops a medical issue, they often have severe emotional distress. Medical conditions can also interfere with one’s typical coping strategies (exercise, socialization, etc.). Therapy can be an integral part of one’s treatment, providing necessary emotional support during a difficult time.
HOW PSYCHOTHERAPY CAN HELP ADDRESS MEDICAL CONCERNS
If you have a serious injury or illness, chances are that you are using many strategies to treat your condition. You may need medication, physical therapy, surgery, and so on. Psychotherapy can be a vital part of holistic treatment. Research indicates certain conditions may improve when stress-reduction techniques and mental health care are part of the treatment process.
Poor physical health can sometimes contribute to mental health concerns. For example, an under-active thyroid can affect brain activity, causing you to become depressed. Some medications for illness can cause anxiety as a side effect. Mental health issues can also stem from the stress and isolation of being ill. Speaking to a therapist can be helpful in these cases.
A therapist can help you build and maintain good mental health, even while coping with physical challenges. Therapy goals may include:
- Working through anger, fear, and grief around the condition, especially if you are reluctant to “vent” around loved ones.
- Processing the trauma that led to your injury or disability.
- Adapting to physical restrictions or life transitions.
- Learning to accept aging and mortality.
- Rebuilding your identity and self-esteem, especially if you have body image issues.
- Practicing stress-reduction and mindfulness techniques.
- Treating any co-occurring mental health concerns such as depression.
Therapy is unlikely to heal your physical condition. However, it can help you adapt to your new reality. Hope can be a powerful motivator when going through difficult times.
FAMILY AND GROUP THERAPY FOR ILLNESS
If your family has been affected by one member’s illness, family counseling may be recommended. Therapy can be a safe, neutral place for family members to discuss difficult issues. Children with chronic or severe illness can benefit from talking through their challenges. If one parent is ill, a therapist can help adults explain the situation to the children in an age-appropriate way.
Healthy family members may also need support. Siblings may feel neglected by their parents or frustrated by their changing routine. Spouses may feel overwhelmed by financial worries and new responsibilities. If illness has put strain on your relationship with your spouse, you may benefit from couples counseling.
Support groups or group therapy sessions may also help you cope with health concerns. Sometimes our loved ones struggle to grasp the full extent of a condition’s impact. You may find it easier to discuss the effects of your illness with others facing similar challenges. A group can offer you new perspectives and advice without stigma. Social support can also give you a sense of companionship as well.
MANAGING A PERSONAL HEALTH ISSUE
Poor health can impact many areas of your life, from daily routines to long-term careers. Sometimes the disruptions are temporary, and other times the changes become permanent. Either way, adjusting to your illness or injury can be stressful.
There is no perfect diet or exercise regimen that can cure disease. However, it is still possible maintain what health you do have with certain lifestyle choices. You can replace old habits with new ones suited to your abilities. For example, if you cannot run anymore, you can do low-impact exercises like swimming or yoga. If you are stuck to your bed, you can do gentle stretches. Any physical movement can help you maintain your strength.
Emotional self-care is also important. You may need to reduce your responsibilities at work or home to focus on recovery. During this time, try to find an activity that brings you joy, whether it’s a hobby, talking with friends, or simply sitting outside. This activity can help you keep up your mood and maintain hope. It is possible to find spots of happiness within even the most difficult situations.
Remember that you do not have to face illness alone. Family and friends can be invaluable in assisting with daily tasks like grocery shopping. Health care professionals can help you navigate your insurance situation, refer you to specialists, and recommend alternative treatments. A therapist can help you develop coping strategies for stress, grief, and social conflict.
Having a team of supporters who communicate with each other is often essential to managing one’s health. If people offer you help, there is no shame in accepting it.
HOW TO SUPPORT A LOVED ONE WHO IS ILL OR INJURED
If you have a loved one who is ill or injured, you may wonder how you can best help them. It is important to remember that every person is different. What feels loving and helpful to one person can feel smothering or judgmental to another.
In most cases, you may want to avoid the following behaviors:
- Don’t use the ill or injured person as an outlet for your emotions. Don’t vent to them about how hard it is to support them or how scared you are. This behavior can increase their guilt or anxiety.
- Don’t tell the loved one horror stories about other people with similar ailments. These tales are unlikely to make them feel good in comparison. Rather, they will likely increase the person’s fear about the future.
- Don’t tell others about their condition without their permission. Everyone has a right to privacy.
- Don’t assume that because someone is injured, ill, or disabled, they are unable to make their own decisions. Don’t try to coerce or force specific treatment or guilt a person into surgery.
These strategies are more likely to prove helpful:
- Do listen to what they have to say. People facing serious illnesses need to be able to discuss their feelings. Listen with an open and compassionate mind.
- Do ask what the person needs and find a way to address that need. For example, if the person gets anxious at medical appointments, you could offer to go with them as a patient advocate.
- Do offer practical support. You could babysit their kids while they take some time to themselves. You could also drive them to medical appointments or cook them a meal.
- Do tell the person how much you love them and how much you want to help.
CASE EXAMPLES OF THERAPY FOR MEDICAL ISSUES
- Dealing with arthritis: Pierre, 56, seeks therapy for feelings of isolation, loneliness, and frustration. Since the recent onset of arthritis symptoms, he has struggled to take part in many of his favorite activities, such as bicycling and playing with his grandchildren. The pain makes him feel much older, as if he is entering a stage of life he is not yet prepared for. This feeling, along with the decrease in physical activity, has brought about a depressed mood. It has also contributed to his self-imposed isolation from his friends. Over several session of therapy, Pierre develops a greater understanding of the changes in his body. He comes to accept that some activities may be more difficult from now on. Pierre realizes that while it may be difficult for him to discuss his condition with his friends and family, doing so may help them be more aware of what he is experiencing. The therapist also provides him with information on treatments and pain management strategies. With the therapist’s help, Pierre chooses a few activities that he wishes to focus on, resolving to make the effort to keep them a part of his life. The therapist also helps him come to the realization that this compromise does not mean he has given up on life.
- Addressing effects of juvenile diabetes in therapy: Natalia, 11, enters therapy at a referral from her doctor. She was recently diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. She reports frustration and anger with her condition. Natalia knows she has to take her health seriously, but she also hates giving herself shots. Another source of stress is the bullying she has been receiving from classmates: her diagnosis occurred after she had to leave a sleepover early when she became ill and wet the bed. The therapist first validates Natalia’s distress, agreeing that it must be difficult to face such challenges at a young age. Over the course of several sessions, the therapist helps Natalia overcome the unease she feels around needles. Natalia and her therapist also discuss the reaction of her classmates. With the therapist’s encouragement, Natalia decides to ask her teacher if she can give a short presentation about diabetes to help her classmates understand what she is going through. She plans to discuss other options with her parents, therapist, and teacher if the teasing does not improve after her presentation. Just speaking to the therapist—a person who listens without being overprotective—has improved Natalia’s mood. Natalia finds she is becoming more able to accept her condition.
If a health issue has brought stress or conflict into your life, therapy can help. There is no shame in seeking support during a difficult time.
- Bolton, J. (Ed.). (2014, May 1). Coping with physical illness. Retrieved from http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/copingwithphysicalillness.aspx
- Jonik, L. (2018, May 21). How to be sick: A short primer on living well with chronic illness. Ravishly. Retrieved from https://ravishly.com/living-well-chronic-illness
- Mental Health and Growing Up: Factsheets for parents, teachers and young people. (4th ed.). (2013). London: The Royal College of Psychiatrists.
- Physical Health and Mental Health. (2011, February 4). Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/policy/physical-health-and-mental-health
- The Relationship between Mental Health, Mental Illness and Chronic Physical Conditions. (2008, December 16). Retrieved from http://ontario.cmha.ca/public_policy/the-relationship-between-mental-health-mental-illness-and-chronic-physical-conditions/#.VhQB6_lViko