Mental Health and Chronic Conditions

20 January 2021 15:38

The boundaries between physical and mental health are seldom as distinct as we might like to think. 


That’s without getting caught up in philosophical discussions about how we categorise the two and to what extent our mental existence is reducible to physical processes. What should be obvious, even if only from experience, is the effect that they can have on each other. For instance, if you’re feeling down, stressed or under pressure, it can compromise your immune system. Often this cruel twist of nature means we end up getting a cold just when we feel we least need it. 

But what about the other way around? In some senses, this is perhaps even more intuitive. Serious injuries or long-term, nagging health conditions can be a potentially serious drain on our mental health. Perhaps they rob us of the ability to do some of the activities we used to enjoy, perhaps certain tasks become more laborious and difficult. In some cases, they can be a source of worry, or anxiety about either specific or common, everyday situations that can spiral into reinforcing cycles or outright phobias. 

For example, surveys have found that people with asthma can be more prone to developing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, even into later life. It’s perhaps understandable, given that the condition can impact almost any aspect of everyday life. 


Asthma and Anxiety

The difficultly with something like asthma and anxiety, in particular, is that symptoms of one could potentially feel like a trigger for symptoms of the other, and many of them are in fact shared: Oftentimes people experiencing periods of high stress and anxiety - even if it does not necessarily reach the level of a panic attack - can feel like they have trouble breathing and that their heart is racing. 

What’s often key here is the ability to recognise the triggers for both experiences. Knowing what the likely cause of each is can help people differentiate them and take appropriate action against them. For instance, much of the time with anxiety, it is about the pattern of thoughts and behaviours that we go through when we come across something that triggers a particular kind of negative thought or emotion. 

A good example of this could be catastrophising. Perhaps our initial negative thought is about how a particular place or situation might trigger an underlying health condition or be complicated by it. Perhaps we have an allergy, or an injury or condition might put us a risk of being embarrassed or feeling awkward, or even in actual danger. The way we react to and engage with these thoughts can itself be a trigger for our anxiety. If we begin to vividly imagine possible worst-case scenarios and outcomes, however unlikely, we can quickly make ourselves more nervous, fearful and worried than we perhaps need to be. In some instances, this can even lead to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. 


How can a Psychologist help?

A clinical psychologist can help clients gain insights into their own thought patterns that might be behind their anxiety. With this greater clarity, they can often suggest specific techniques to help manage symptoms and minimise their impact.

Likewise, sometimes the medications for long terms health conditions can have effects on our mood or sleeping patterns and these can range from the subtle to the severe depending on the individual person. 

There can be any number of ways to deal with this, but if you or someone you know is experiencing low mood, or depressive thoughts, whether they’re attributable to an obvious cause or not, it’s always best to seek out professional help. That’s the case whether the symptoms are severe or not as prevention and early intervention are always best. That is not to say that friends and family and other support networks might be insufficient, but sometimes there can be complex underlying causes that can be difficult to pinpoint and easy to misattribute.


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