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Acute illness has a discrete onset of symptoms while chronic illness persists for a sustained period of time. Both affect the lives of everyone involved and can create stress for both the patient and the family who may benefit from the support of a qualified therapist to help them cope with the many demands resulting from the illness.
The Mind-Body Relationship
Interest in the relationship between psychological well-being and physical health has been growing rapidly. This is an extremely important trend. Psychology has a great deal to contribute to the care of those with physical illnesses. Thinking about the links between mind and body, however, has been one-sided to a great extent.
For the most part, the focus of attention has been on how psychological factors impact health. Some examples: research has shown that 50% of mortalities from the ten leading causes of death in this country can be attributed to behavioral patterns (Center for Disease Control, 1980); and psychological interventions have been developed for the treatment of many medical conditions including hypertension, ulcers, headaches, cancer, and many others.
Illness as a Mental Health Stressor
Efforts focused on studying the mind body relationship are extremely valuable, but they have often neglected the link that runs from physical health status to mental health. Illness, when severe and/or chronic, is a powerful stressor with profound psychological effects. Health problems often limit a person's capacity to work and they frequently lead to many other restrictions in one's activities. The consequences of these stresses can include such emotional reactions as anger, anxiety, fear, and depression; problems in relationships, especially family difficulties; and confusion about how to relate to the medical treatment of the condition. Illness ranks near the very top of the list of life events that bring with them a great deal of stress.
Unfortunately, too little attention is directed to this link between illness and mental health. People suffering from serious health problems very frequently miss the line between illness and psychological distress as well. Often, individuals are so overwhelmed emotionally by their medical conditions that they find that the only way they can cope is by denial -- sometimes acting as if the illness itself does not exist, or, more commonly, acknowledging the medical condition but denying its psychological impact. Indeed, many people fail to recognize the psychological consequences of their health problems even when it might seem that they are making efforts to address those issues.
Psychologists and other mental health professionals can play a key role when it comes to medical illness by helping people with physical illnesses respond to the psychological consequences of their medical conditions -- that is, focusing attention on the way illness often leads to psychological distress. With chronic physical illnesses such as arthritis, asthma, chronic pain syndromes, multiple sclerosis, and ulcers in the context of individual, family, and group therapy, psychotherapy can have a great impact. Patients make use of therapy as a vehicle to help them turn the harsh realities of their medical conditions into an opportunity for an enhanced commitment to life.
Health problems can lead to psychological stress, and, if this stress is not addressed, it can worsen the patient's medical condition. Similarly, illness often results in psychological stress. Another example of the circularity of stress is the family dynamics related to caregiving. The illness of a family member often causes the caregivers much stress, and the ill family member is often overly involved in taking care of the emotional needs of his caregivers.
We can promote psychological well-being and this, in turn, can lead to better health -- for example, through health gains that result from more active efforts at self-care directed at the medical problem, or direct effects on such physical processes as blood pressure or the immune system.
Psychologists and other mental health professionals can help move patients to better health, but in order to do this, we need to take our eye off physical health as the sole target of our efforts by including a focus on psychological well-being.
For further information about treatment or to schedule an appointment, call our offices to speak to a therapist about your particular needs and concerns.
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