How To Deal With Depression Tied To Having A Chronic Health Condition, According To Experts
People with chronic health problems usually receive help from their doctors to minimize physical pain, but they're not always told anything about the emotional pain of living with a chronic health condition. While 10-25 percent of women in the general population experience depression, 25-33 percent of those with chronic illnesses do. And that's understandable. When you're in physical discomfort, your ability to live your life is compromised, and when you don't know if or when it will end, it's easy to fall into a rabbit hole of depression.
"Pain and depression can be synonymous in the brain, so it’s not uncommon for depression to set in in light of chronic illness," psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz tells Bustle. "In fact, a period of grief after the news that there’s illness in the body is natural and expected. That grief honors the life you had before the diagnosis, and you have to see that grief through with compassion and wholeheartedness, making sure not to push it away. Pushing away grief over chronic illness is a form of pushing yourself away."
If you're dealing with depression tied to a chronic health problem, you're not alone. Here are some tips from experts on maintaining your mental health when your physical health is compromised.
1. Don't Push Yourself
Trying to work through exhaustion or fulfill burdensome obligations while your health is suffering can make you sicker and more depressed. "When those of us with chronic illness push ourselves beyond our limits, it takes longer to recover than it does for other people," naturopathic physician Pamela Reilly tells Bustle. "By choosing our activities carefully, we can avoid exhausting ourselves and winding up flat on our backs."
People with chronic health conditions may have limits on what exercises they can do, but Reilly recommends finding a physical activity your body can handle if possible and doing it for at least 10 minutes a day. "As little as 10 minutes of gentle exercise per day helps increase the body's production of energy (by positively impacting the Krebs cycle) and increases the production of 'feel good' chemicals in the brain," she says. "Whether we do some gentle walking, do chair yoga, or gently use hand weights or resistance bands, it all counts and increases our ability to feel better."
3. Accept The Situation
It may seem counterintuitive, but the only way to one day feel better is to accept how bad you feel right now. "If you can allow yourself to surrender, you can then turn your mind to how best to take care of yourself," says Luiz.
4. Appreciate What You Can Still Do
You might find that as your condition gets worse, you realize you'd be grateful to be back where you were in its early stages — which means that if it were to get even worse, you'd be grateful for where you are now. It doesn't have to get worse for you to experience that gratitude, though. "This is where illness can become a teacher," says Luiz. "You learn how to be grateful for the little things that save us from excessive suffering. A ray of light, something that tastes good, and most importantly, loving connections between people who matter. You have to connect to all that is good in life when you have chronic illness, which is why it can become our greatest teacher in promoting connectedness, mindfulness, and gratitude."
5. Enlist A Good Team
Make sure the physical and mental health care providers you're working with aren't just competent but also warm and compassionate. You'll also want to surround yourself with friends and family who care about you and are willing to help you. "You'll need to learn ways to discuss and communicate with others regarding your body's limits and needs, deciding how much to disclose on a case-by-case basis," clinical psychologist Lori Klett Roberto tells Bustle.
6. Maintain Your Life
It's only natural to want to gather all the information you can about your condition, but if you let it take over your life, that will hurt your health in the long run. "It is really important to know that you are not solely your disease or diagnosis," says Roberto. "It helps to stay connected to activities and people that give your life meaning and value."
7. Trust Yourself
Unfortunately, many people with chronic illnesses experience gaslighting and dismissive comments at the hands of their family, friends, and medical professionals, which can make their illness even more difficult to deal with. If this happens to you, find people who are more supportive.
"For those with mystery illnesses, or illnesses like lupus that typically take a long time to diagnose, so many women are told that their symptoms are in their head," social worker Azmia Magane tells Bustle. "Not having a diagnosis and being told it’s all in your head can quickly lead to depressive episodes and feelings of hopelessness. You know your body. Your doctor works for you. If you feel like your doctor is not doing an adequate job, get a new one — one who listens. It’s not in your head."
8. Find A Support Group
Getting through depression and finding hope is easier when you can talk to people who relate to you. "Chronic illness can make you feel isolated, which in turn can lead to depressive episodes or increase feelings of depression," says Magane. "Because of this, I suggest joining support communities, even if it’s just an online support community. There are tons on Facebook and Tumblr. It helps to have a support system who understands exactly what you’re going through."
"Health is not just about your body and your physical health — it’s also about your mental and emotional health," Magane says. "Talk to a health care professional you trust if you feel like you’ve developed depression as a result of your chronic illness."