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Chronic illness and mental health

Living with a chronic condition is hard, but you can reduce its impact on your mental and emotional wellbeing.

Do you live with pain every day? Do you live with a disability, or a chronic condition such as endometriosis, PCOS, heart disease, diabetes or osteoporosis? Does the daily struggle make you feel sad or anxious?

Know that you are not alone. Half of the people in Australia that live with a chronic health condition experience depression or anxiety, according to research conducted by SANE Australia, a national mental health charity.

A chronic condition can affect your lifestyle and your quality of life. But there are ways to reduce its impact on your emotional and mental wellbeing, says Tamara Cavenett, president of the Australian Psychological Society (APS).

Grief for what we had

First, it is important to understand the emotional fallout of living with a chronic condition.

“We often get angry,” says Ms Cavenett. “A lot of us experience grief for the life we had before. It is not uncommon to grieve the loss of your health, and yet it is something that people are most dismissive of.”

“They might say, 'other people have it worse. I shouldn’t feel this upset. It’s only asthma’ or whatever. But it [can have] a substantial effect on your work, your personal life and often, your financial life.”

Emotional pain

As humans, we are driven to solve problems. “I need to figure out how to pay this bill – I will do ‘X’,” says Ms Cavenett. “The problem is quite different when it is a health issue that can be managed by you, but not controlled or fixed. Then it’s a matter of learning to live with it. That’s part of the reason we talk about it as grief.

“A lot of people ask, ‘why me? What did I do to deserve this?’ ‘It’s not fair’ is the common thinking around it and that’s understandable. You get a lot of anger, frustration and feelings of unfairness around it.”

Ms Cavenett says she always urges her clients to acknowledge their feelings. It is important for them to know they can discuss how they feel with their health team, as well as family and friends. Emotional support is vital in making the best of the circumstances.

Coping strategies

Psychologists can help, as they can tailor coping strategies and tips to an individual client’s needs, says Ms Cavenett. “We have proven strategies that will help you to change how you think, and that can change how you end up doing things,” she says. “We often teach skills around relaxation, pain and anxiety management and stress reduction.”

Pain, she explains, is influenced by anxiety and mood. She says there are things you can do to improve your mood and therefore lift your pain threshold.

“It’s not about injuring yourself, but doing things in a concerted way,” she explains.

“You have to work with it. It’s about modifying what you do and how you do it to take into account your health condition so that you get maximum quality of life and benefit from it.

“Sometimes it’s about shifting the mindset and a psychologist can help with that.”

Those who suffer with a chronic condition tend to isolate themselves, assuming others are not experiencing something similar. “It’s important to manage your mental health to its best,” says Ms Cavenett. “Sixty per cent of Australians with mental health conditions will have one or more chronic health conditions.

“Mental health is stigmatised. Our understanding of physical health is much better.

“It’s important to work on both parts of the system. It’s about living our best life with all of our health.”

Tips for coping with a chronic condition

• Take good notes at your medical appointments. Get in control of the elements of your health condition. Learn about it to better manage it.

• It’s about taking back control. The more information you have, the more you can work around it. You can jump back into the driver’s seat and have a full and rich life.

• Pace what you do in terms of activity. While you may not be able to do the things you used to do, you adjust, creating a new way of living while managing your condition, still achieving what you want to in life.

• You are not alone in this. Get support. Find someone who can help you if you need it. That may be a psychologist, a GP, a friend or a family member.

Find more information on looking after your mental and emotional health at jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/mentalemotional-health

Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women's Health
1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642)


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