Few things can impact your life and cause as much stress as medical illnesses. They lower your quality of life and often limit what you can do. They can even lead to mental health conditions, including depression. If you’re wondering whether seeing a chronic illness therapist might help, read on.
How a Chronic Illness Therapist Can Help You Feel Better
If you’re newly diagnosed, you may be finding that adjusting to your chronic illness is a difficult process. A therapist who specializes in chronic illness therapy can help you cope with your new situation while maintaining good emotional health. Physical health can impact your emotional health, and vice versa. So it’s important to make sure that your emotional health doesn’t worsen your chronic illness.
If, on the other hand, you’ve been suffering with chronic illness(es) for a while, seeing a chronic illness therapist can help in various ways. The therapist will talk with you about the physical and emotional impact your condition has had on you over time. They may even help you see ways the illness has affected you that you haven’t recognized. Perhaps most importantly, the therapist can help address any depression, irritability or anger related to your medical situation. They often do this by teaching you strategies and coping skills that can improve your quality of life.
What Would Be Considered a Chronic Illness?
Chronic illness is any disease with a medical diagnosis and active symptoms that require long-term management, and that can’t be cured with surgery or medication. Illness symptoms usually interfere with daily functioning. Some examples of this interference include negative impact on mood, mobility impairment, difficulties with occupational performance or relationships, chronic pain, and/or sleep difficulties. Individuals who suffer from a chronic illness may also have the added responsibility of regular medical visits, lab work, medications and lifestyle changes. All in all, managing a chronic illness can be quite taxing and can often (and rightfully) lead you to seek out professional support.
Below are some common chronic illnesses that require daily management.
Heart disease is any condition that concerns the impairment in function or structure of the heart. This can include coronary artery disease, cardiac arrhythmias, heart attack, and heart failure. Chronic heart disease often requires lifestyle modification and the use of medication.
A cancer diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and remission rate differs by the organ and cancer type. However, most forms of cancer are serious chronic illnesses that require vigilance, routine medical appointments, treatment, and adherence to medication/follow-up care.
ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)
ALS is a condition of the nervous system that weakens muscles and impairs physical function over time. Medication and treatment can slow ALS but there is unfortunately no cure for it. This condition can burden your mood, lifestyle, and psychological well-being.
Arthritis is inflammation in the joints that causes pain and stiffness. The degree of physical discomfort can vary from person to person, as can physical function. Both forms of arthritis (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis) are considered chronic illnesses, though they are different conditions.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a common chronic condition that affects the way our body processes blood sugar. Researchers estimate that 9 to 11% of Americans suffer from type 2 diabetes. Medical treatment involves addressing your diet, weight, exercise regimen, medication, and can include insulin therapy.
A stroke is an incident that occurs when there is damage to the brain due to interrupted or restricted blood supply. Symptoms can include difficulty in walking, speaking, understanding, and paralysis or numbness in the face, arm, or leg. Medication is used to improve blood supply in the hours following a stroke. Long term treatment often involves occupational and physical therapy as well as lifestyle modifications.
Do Chronic Illnesses Ever Go Away?
By nature, chronic illnesses do not typically go away. It’s common for symptom intensity and frequency to fluctuate with time and treatment. Therefore, changes in medical status can correlate with mood and functioning. There might be periods of time where individuals are significantly burdened by the disease and its symptoms as well as the required medical care (e.g. active cancer treatment).
There might be times when there is no significant impact of chronic disease on one’s mood or functioning (e.g. when cancer is in remission). Individuals with chronic illnesses are almost always advised to regularly monitor symptoms and adhere to necessary medical visits. For some people, over time, this necessary vigilance can lead to excessive worry.
How Does Chronic Illness Affect Mental Health?
The nature of the disease, the symptoms, mortality risk, and the challenges of treatment can all affect your mood and functioning. The category of functioning includes your ability to work, to engage in social relationships, hobbies and physical activity, etc. These are all sources of joy and meaning in life, so when your abilities are limited due to reasons beyond your control, psychological health can suffer.
What Type of Therapy Is Best for Chronic Illnesses?
There are a few psychotherapeutic approaches that can be helpful in managing chronic illnesses, and all are compatible with each other. In other words, you don’t have to pick one! The best kind of treatment uses principles from each approach. Below are some of the most common types of psychotherapy used in cases of chronic illness.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on behavioral change and how our thoughts and emotions are linked with each other and our behavior. CBT encourages daily routines, and activities for pleasure and mastery (or accomplishment) to maintain stable mood. CBT can be useful for management of chronic illness to the extent that it can help brainstorm activities for joy and productivity while keeping physical limitations in mind. It can also examine and evaluate any related thoughts or beliefs that may (unnecessarily) limit quality of life or feelings of self-worth.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
Dialectical behavior therapy emphasizes the equal importance of acceptance of circumstances while acting towards change. In the case of chronic illness, DBT would encourage radical and complete acceptance of the nature of the disease and symptoms while making behavioral changes to improve mood and quality of life. It focuses on creating a life worth living and regulating emotions related to chronic illness.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
Similar to DBT, ACT emphasizes acceptance of disease and possible limitations, while also emphasizing commitment to valued activities that improve quality of life. It has proven to be effective especially in the management of chronic pain.
What Are the Goals of Chronic Illness Therapy?
The outcome in chronic illness therapy is to improve your mood, help you build and maintain a life of valued activities, and to exercise acceptance of things that you cannot change. For example, if you are suffering from chronic pain, the goal would not be to get rid of pain. The goal would be to engage in activities that safely allow you to feel pleasure, accomplishment, and social connection – while adhering to medical guidelines. These activities could include, for example, employment in a type of work that does not exacerbate pain symptoms or engagement in social activities that are time-limited and allow for rest.
Chronic illness therapy uses the principles of changing thoughts and behaviors, regulating emotions, and acceptance-based coping to help you improve psychological health and stability. Carving a valued life outside of the chronic illness can often improve psychological wellbeing. This can then fuel you to better care for yourself and to address your illness.
If you suffer from a chronic illness and could use support, please contact us at 646-863-4225 or send us an inquiry by clicking the button below. We have therapists who specialize in addressing chronic illness using evidence-based therapy as described above.
Chronic Illness Therapist – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How do you live positively with a chronic illness?
The best way to live positively with a chronic illness is to 1) do things that bring you pleasure and a feeling of accomplishment, and 2) engage in social activities to the extent that your symptoms allow. This would be a good start.
What is chronic illness burnout?
Chronic illness burnout is when someone feels mentally exhausted from the burden of caring for oneself. This could show as sadness or a depressed mood, social isolation, and negligence in caring for oneself. These are important signs that indicate that psychological support may be appropriate and useful.
How to be in a relationship with someone who has a chronic illness?
Being in an intimate relationship with someone who has a chronic illness can be challenging. Partners can also feel burnout! The best way to be in the relationship is to be as supportive as you can (emotionally and practically) while also recognizing your own limits. If your partner could benefit from further emotional support, encourage them to maintain important relationships with family and friends. They may also benefit from seeing a mental health professional, depending on his or her situation.
Additionally, many caregivers for people with chronic illnesses benefit from seeing a therapist themselves. The psychological and physical demands of caring for an ill loved ones are often quite significant. Talking to a supportive professional is often helpful. (For a recommended in-depth book on this important topic, check out Stand By Me, to be released in February 2024.)
What’s the best coping strategy for chronic illness?
Some helpful strategies are engaging in activities of joy and accomplishment (as limitations allow), maintaining daily routines, and being socially active – while adhering to medical recommendations.