All of us have had the experience of getting sick, then the illness goes away and we feel better again. For many people, illness is something that soon passes.
However for some individuals, illnesses do not go away. Whilst there are disease processes that are silent and not noticed until they get much more serious (eg heart disease which can begin as an inflammatory condition), others can completely erode the individual’s quality of life, with symptoms experienced on a regular basis.
What it is like to live with a Chronic Condition
The saying that the most important thing we have is our health, and we won’t appreciate that until we lose it, is very true. The everyday and ordinary feeling of wellness, once lost, can be devastating.
Individuals with a chronic condition may have days when they just don’t feel like engaging in life anymore, as it is just not rewarding or too difficult.
At other times, dealing with symptoms adds an additional burden to life, something like having to carry a 40kg pack around all the time.
Many people lose the level of functionality they once had, and life becomes a process of downsizing, so that lesser demands can be managed. This may have financial consequences, like the obvious one of having less money, but also the loss of something that the individual may have loved doing, and the loss of status that goes along with being good at something. Even the individual’s social circle may suffer as it commonly involves what they used to enjoy doing.
For others, an illness may carry a social stigma – such as virally caused illnesses that may be associated with behaviours that are less socially accepted (by some). And for others, there may be physical disfigurement to deal with as well.
Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome & Auto Immune Conditions
Many people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia have suffered a great deal simply because the cause of their illness is not known, and some have been made to feel therefore that the cause is in their heads.
Recent research points to the fact that in these conditions, the genetic regulatory mechanism has been affected, resulting in significant physical dysregulation. These are real physical conditions. In studies of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, when psychological distress is measured, it is the one common factor in symptom profiles.
In auto-immune illnesses, there are studies that reveal childhood distress is linked to pro-inflammatory dysregulation.
A Holistic Approach
Does the research mean then that we have brought this condition upon ourselves? I think this is an over-simplification. Certainly there is evidence that a traumatic childhood can dysregulate our hormonal axis.
However, I think what is important to realise is that what we have been through is one factor which we shouldn’t leave out of our wellness plan, but it is not the only factor.
This could also apply to a broad spectrum of physical conditions that are currently thought of as having solely physical causes. For example when people are psychologically distressed, their health behaviours may deteriorate, and junk food, alcohol, cigarettes and even illegal substances may be used as a tool in psychological coping.
In certain types of heart disease, a hostile disposition or depression can be independent risk factors – demonstrating that behaviour and psychosocial factors are often present.
Over time, research into epigenetics will help clarify the links between mind and body. A good way of thinking about things is that we have a unique genetic makeup, and this combined with our personality and psychological history constitutes a vulnerability in the face of certain stressful (disease) experiences.
I have found that the most effective approaches to chronic illness management and improvement are holistic: more leverage can be gained by taking a broad approach looking at body, mind, social support, spiritual and physical aspects of ourselves, as well as integrative medical approaches.
What often gets left out is the psycho-social aspect, and for many this offers the biggest gains. In therapy, my goal is to help you to achieve improvements in wellbeing, by helping to heal psychosocial factors from your past that may be reducing the effectiveness of integrative medical solutions, and assist you with better coping strategies in the present.
Author: Paul Carver, Bsc, Msc, PG Dip Health Psych.
Paul Carver is a Psychologist with a very wide range of experience, and is focused on bringing the very best evidence-based treatments to his clients.
To arrange an appointment with Paul Carver, freecall 1800 877 924 or you can book online.