Nearly sixty percent of all Americans struggle with sometype of chronic illness, whether it’s hypertension, heart disease, diabetes or cancer, as reported by the CDC. It’s a sure bet that you or someone you know is currently managing a chronic illness; it’s more common than many of us realize, regardless of whether we’re struggling with the disease ourselves.
Unfortunately, chronic diseases are all too common. What’s worse, however, is that chronic conditions can also beget mental illness. In this blog, we’ll share the connection between chronic conditions and mental health, and provide some tips on optimizing mental wellness while navigating chronic illness.
The link between chronic disease and mental health
A chronic disease is an umbrella term which refers to illnesses that typically last a year or longer and require ongoing medical attention or treatment. Some chronic diseases come from negative lifestyle factors like smoking or excessive alcohol intake, while others are genetic or brought about by stress. Even more unfortunately, some chronic diseases are enigmatic—physicians don’t always know exactly what brought them on, often making prevention and treatment all the more difficult.
People say when it rains, it pours, and that’s often how it is for people living with chronic diseases. Homewood Health reports that people with chronic conditions often experience…
- More incidences of depression, as people with chronic conditions are twice as likely to develop major depressive disorder
- Higher levels of stress
- Increased anxiety
- Higher instances of mood disorders
- Changes in self-esteem and body image
Part of the reason that chronic conditions can become so mentally debilitating is the difficulty of diagnosis for less understood diseases. Patients may experience their symptoms intensely, but those same symptoms don’t always show up on diagnostic tests. This leads many people on a long, frustrating journey of testing, seeing multiple doctors, getting every specialist’s take, and doing a LOT of self-advocating at the doctor’s office.
In addition, managing your health is hard. Whether you know exactly what your chronic illness is or not, it can be like walking on eggshells to ensure you’re eating right, getting enough exercise, sleeping well, staying mentally fit and doing everything you can to boost your health. When improvements aren’t rapid enough, it can feel defeating and further spike anxiety and stress.
Steps you can take to improve your mental well-being
Enough of the Debbie Downer energy, because there’s also good news here. There are plenty of things you can do to boost your mental health and ensure that your mental wellness isn’t majorly affected by any physical health issues. We’ve listed them out for you below:
1. Physical Movement
Exercise is one of the simplest ways to maintain your health and move stress out of your body. Not only does physical activity improve your physical health, but it also is a huge factor affecting your mental wellness. Working out—walking, mowing the lawn, heading to the gym, practicing yoga—signals to your mind and body that stressful events of the day are complete, and you are safe (i.e. your nervous system calms down and isn’t constantly signaling you to worry). Twenty minutes a day is a great start, but some movement is always better than none! You can check out five easy ways to add physical activity into your day here.
If your chronic illness prevents you from being able to exercise, then you can also try Progressive Muscle Relaxation to reap similar benefits. It is a simple process of consecutively tightening major muscle groups in your body and then relaxing them. Research has shown it can provide similar stress-reducing benefits to physical activity! Follow along with the video below to try it for yourself.
2. Mindfulness & Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation are research-backed tactics to decrease stress and anxiety, manage mental health conditions, and improve physical health outcomes.
Adding mindfulness into your life means you become more curious about your thoughts. Instead of instantly believing automatic negative thoughts, you question them: Is that really true? Where is that coming from? Do I have to believe this? Becoming mindful is often described as becoming an observer of your inner world, which builds one’s ability to cope with stress, loss, and life transitions.
Meditation is taking time to be present in peace. For some, this is sitting in silence, for others, it’s going on a walk in nature. It can even be spinning clay on a pottery wheel or knitting. There are a myriad of ways people connect into a sense of peacefulness and calm; it’s all about finding what works best for you.
Some guided meditations even incorporate mindfulness; you can check out this 10-minute mindfulness meditation from Calm below.
Also, if you have insomnia or trouble falling asleep, how about trying Yoga Nidra at nighttime? This video with a calming voice transitions my body into relaxation and sleep mode even after a stressful day.
When it comes to mental health, getting support from licensed professionals is one of the best ways to go, especially when dealing with the stress and uncertainty of chronic illness. For some, traditional talk therapy is best. You can search for therapists in your area who specialize in chronic disease management or use sites like BetterHelp to access fully remote therapists.
Others prefer support groups with people struggling with similar health issues. Talk to your doctor about whether any support groups are available in your area; with the onset of COVID, plenty have gone fully remote, too. This article from the Mayo Clinic outlines more of the benefits of support groups.
4. Social Connections
Feeling supported by your loved ones is key to attaining mental wellness. Even if your friends and family do not struggle with the same chronic illness, many of them want to support you. Take some time to lean into those connections, whether you tell them about your health frustrations or simply spend more time with them. A supportive social network is one of the most important factors for decreasing stress and increasing overall wellness—start prioritizing your close relationships and allow those to be places of encouragement for you.
There are simple things you can add or increase in your schedule that can lead to better mental health and for some, improved physical health as well. Choose one or two from this list to bring into your week!
Sometimes even just knowing that there’s a connection between chronic conditions and mental health can feel validating for people struggling with illnesses; remember that you are not alone, and you can use these tips to facilitate your health journey.