Anxiety, Depression, and Chronic Illness … a Vicious Circle?
Approximately 150 million Americans suffer from some type of chronic illness. That’s almost 1 out of every 2 adults in the U.S.
As if these numbers aren’t bad enough, people with chronic medical conditions – such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, kidney disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and cancer – also have a greater risk of developing anxiety or depression.
In fact, it’s been estimated that nearly a third of those suffering from chronic illnesses also suffer some type of mood disorder … the most common being anxiety and depression.
To make matters worse, people who suffer from long-term anxiety or depression are also much more likely to develop chronic health problems. Approximately 70% of adults who’ve been diagnosed with some type of mood disorder also have at least one co-existing medical condition.
That’s right. Chronic pain and illness can easily lead to anxiety and depression and long-term anxiety and depression can lead to chronic pain and illness.
And to compound matters further, when you’re suffering from a chronic health condition it can be difficult to know whether any feelings of anxiety or depression are due to your physical condition or a mood disorder.
This is why the symptoms of mood disorders in those suffering from chronic pain and illness often go undiagnosed and untreated.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way … You don’t need to endlessly suffer the vicious circle of anxiety, depression, and chronic health conditions!
Why Anxiety and Depression Co-Occur with Chronic Illness and Pain
The combination of anxiety or depression and chronic medical conditions can take a seemingly countless number of forms. For example, you may:
- Have asthma, feel anxious, and have occasional panic attacks;
- Feel depressed, experience migraines, and have a high blood pressure;
- Be coping with diabetes, fibromyalgia, and have symptoms of depression;
- And so on, and so on …
But what causes these mental and physical conditions to occur together?
It’s actually pretty easy to see some of the cause and effect relationships between chronic illness and depression …
Although depression itself seems to be caused by a combination of biological, environmental, psychological and genetic factors, any illness can trigger feelings of sadness or depression. And the risk of depression only increases with the severity of the illness and the level of life disruption it causes.
Chronic pain and illness can limit one’s mobility and independence and make it seem impossible to do many of the things you once enjoyed. Dreams and goals may feel shattered, you may fear that you won’t be able to care for yourself or your family, or that your family and friends will abandon you and you’ll become overwhelmed and alone.
These changes and fears can easily lead to anxiety or depression and can easily eat away at your self-confidence and a sense of optimism for the future.
Consequently, people suffering from chronic illness and pain often experience feelings of anxiety, sadness, if not outright despair.
On top of this, the physical effects of many chronic health conditions and the side effects of various prescription medications can also lead to depression. And the risks are even higher for those with a history of depression.
Additional reasons depression co-occurs with conditions of chronic illness and pain, include:
- Some chronic diseases – such as an underactive thyroid and Cushing’s syndrome – change one’s body chemistry and can actually lead to depression;
- People suffering from depression often eat poorly, get less exercise, smoke, and have other difficulties taking care of their health, all of which can lead to health problems;
- The everyday stresses involved in coping with chronic pain and illness can lead to depression or make it worse;
- Depression has been directly linked with some health conditions … For example, people with diabetes are more likely to suffer from depression and people with depression are more likely to develop diabetes.
Regardless of the cause, depression typically makes any chronic condition worse than it would otherwise be. This is especially true if the illness causes pain, fatigue, or limits one’s ability to interact with others. If the combination of depression and a chronic medical condition leads one to isolate one’s self, the depression is only likely to intensify.
Okay, that’s depression … What about anxiety?
Well, as we’ve already discussed, the diagnosis of a serious illness can trigger numerous fears, such as not being able to fulfill your dreams and aspirations or take care of your family.
But these fears aren’t the end of the link between anxiety and chronic illness and pain.
Just having a health problem can cause anxiety, and anxiety can certainly make any health problem you do have worse. For example, older men with an anxiety disorder are more likely to have a heart attack.
Additionally, chronic pain – such as migraine headaches, muscle tension, fibromyalgia, and arthritis – can be, in and of themselves, an indication or symptom of an existing anxiety disorder.
And there’s a risk of developing social anxiety that’s compounded by the limitations on mobility and the unwarranted but all too common feelings of embarrassment many have when struggling with a chronic health condition.
Given the propensity for anxiety and depression to lead to and exacerbate chronic health conditions and for chronic health conditions to lead to and exacerbate anxiety and depression, the situation may seem hopeless … But there is hope!
Stopping the Vicious Circle
People with a chronic illness – as well as their family members and other caregivers – often overlook co-occurring symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The assumption is that feeling anxiety, stress, or sadness is “normal” for someone struggling with a chronic health condition.
It’s also not uncommon for the symptoms of anxiety and depression to be masked by one’s medical condition, in which case the symptoms may be treated but not the underlying mood disorder.
When you have anxiety or depression and a chronic health condition, both issues need to be treated simultaneously.
First of all, if you’re suffering from chronic pain or illness and experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression, talk to your doctor or another healthcare professional and ask them to help you work out what’s going on and whether or not you might be able to benefit from additional advice or treatment.
Besides discussing your concerns with your doctor, you should also:
- Learn as much as you can about your condition – Knowledge is power when it comes to getting the best treatment available, whether that treatment is for anxiety, depression, or your chronic health issues.
- Eat a balanced diet, and get regular exercise – Regular exercise and good nutrition can strengthen your muscles, boost your immune system, improve your mood and self-esteem, and help you cope with anxiety, depression, and whatever illness you face.
- Practice relaxation exercises – Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness based stress reduction can help you develop the ability to cope more effectively with the stresses that contribute to anxiety and pain.
- Sleep – Getting good and consistent amounts of sleep is critical when it comes to managing both anxiety and pain.
- Don’t isolate yourself – If you don’t already have a solid support network in place, take steps to build one. You can find support in groups and seminars led by professionals, in groups of others who have the same conditions as you, and in your relationships with friends and family members.
And don’t forget that it’s okay to cry, scream, or even ask, “Why me?” These can be normal – even healthy – reactions. It is when your reactions and emotions affect your ability to live your life that it’s time to seek professional help.
Unfortunately, many people still have concerns about seeking professional help for mental health issues. However, seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.
Living with a chronic illness is a challenge, and it’s normal to feel anxiety and grief, stress and sadness, as you come to grips with your condition and its implications. But if these feelings don’t go away, or you are having trouble eating or sleeping, or you’ve lost interest in the activities you normally enjoy, seek the help of a professional counselor or psychotherapist today!
Anxiety, depression, and chronic illness and pain can form a vicious circle. But they don’t have to … And, by treating both your psychological and physical issues simultaneously you can often improve your overall medical condition, enjoy a better quality of life, and begin to move forward again in life with optimism and confidence about the future.
If you have any questions about this article, or if I may be of any other assistance, please feel free to contact me at (949) 310-2311 with any questions you may have or to schedule a free, initial phone consultation. I look forward to hearing from you.