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Protecting Your Mental Health While Living With a Chronic Illness

May 5, 2022
By Michelle Konstantinovsky
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It’s hard to think of many life scenarios more trying than receiving a diagnosis for a chronic health condition. While acute injuries and illnesses can be unpleasant and stressful in their own ways, the sole silver lining of these conditions is that they generally have a finite end. Chronic conditions, however (which can run the gamut from diabetes and heart disease to cancer, high cholesterol, arthritis, and more) are physical or mental health conditions that last more than one year, cause certain functional restrictions, and require ongoing monitoring or treatment.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness, you’re certainly far from alone: nearly half (about 45% or 133 million) of all Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease, and that number continues to rise. While it may be comforting to know you have others coping with their chronic illnesses alongside you, the daily psychological and emotional toll of navigating an incurable disease can be incredibly tough.

“For many, living with a chronic medical condition can be stressful,” says One Medical licensed clinical psychologist, Andrew Bertagnolli, PhD. “Sometimes it can leave you feeling anxious or depressed and isolated from others.”

Those feelings can be taxing over time and lead to other health consequences. In fact, studies have shown that people with chronic illnesses may be more likely to have or develop a mental health condition such as depression. “Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all connected with one another,” says One Medical psychologist Elizabeth Ruhl, PsyD. “This connection can often be helpful, but sometimes, it can be challenging. If you are not feeling well physically, it is hard to feel well mentally, and this often can prevent you from engaging in healthy activities that can help you feel better.”

While it’s true that the challenges of a physical health condition can affect your emotional well-being, there are a number of ways to protect your mental health while coping with a chronic illness. Taking initiative in prioritizing and maintaining your mental wellness can be a challenge when you’re already juggling the myriad aspects of a chronic condition, but incorporating a few simple tips and techniques into your everyday life can go a long way in keeping your outlook positive and your mood balanced. Here are some suggestions from the pros:

1. Take it step by step

“Break things up into manageable tasks,” Ruhl says. “If you aren’t sure you can achieve what you are seeking out to do, rethink your goal. For example: if you have 10 tasks on your to-do list and the mere sight brings about feelings of stress, decrease the amount of tasks to a number that feels less stressful. If we set unrealistic goals for ourselves, we can quickly lose motivation and feel overwhelmed. On the flip side, if you are able to achieve your goals, it can add a boost to your mood.”

Bertagnolli agrees that pacing yourself and setting realistic expectations are key strategies for preventing overwhelm and burnout. “Try not to take on more than you can accomplish,” he says. “This is especially true for individuals whose physical health condition has symptoms of fatigue or pain.

2. Add good-for-you activities to your calendar

“Schedule healthy things into your day that relieve stress,” Ruhl says. “This could be as simple as talking to a friend or even sitting outside and enjoying the fresh air. When we have so much on our plate, we frequently forget things that help us feel more resilient.”

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3. Practice self-compassion

“Treat yourself like you would a good friend,” Ruhl says. “Often, we are so hard on ourselves but if we had a friend in the same situation, we would only provide kindness and compassion.”

For those who struggle with the concept of being gentle with themselves, developing a gratitude practice and seeking out resources on mindfulness, positive thinking, and other useful mental health techniques may help quiet the inner critic and amplify the inner advocate. “Cultivate an optimistic attitude,” Bertagnolli says. “Focus on the present moment, identify at least one thing for which you are grateful — write it down and refer back to it when you are not feeling so well.”

4. Rely on friends, family, and anyone else in your network

“It is always okay to ask for help or support!” Ruhl says. “Sometimes this means reaching out to friends or family for extra encouragement, and sometimes this can also mean reaching out to a therapist to have a space to talk about the challenging aspects of managing chronic physical health conditions.”

In-person meet-ups aren’t always possible, especially if the chronic illness you’re dealing with makes it difficult to be social or entertain guests. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to reach out and remain close to your support team, even from afar. “Stay connected to your social supports either in person or via technology,” Bertagnolli says. “Keeping these connections can help you get through rough patches as well as celebrate milestones.”

While living with a chronic condition is undeniably challenging and can bring about obstacles and frustrations, putting these strategies into place and striving for a more balanced, relaxed state of being can go a long way in keeping your energy, mood, and stamina elevated. “Often by improving your mental health, your physical health will improve,” Bertagnolli says. “Talk to your primary care provider. Let them know that you are struggling and they can help point you to getting the care you need.”

What many people don’t realize is that their primary care provider is a great option for getting mental health care. At One Medical, we believe your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Our providers are equipped to treat the whole person, knowing that the physical affects the mental and vice versa. Our suite of behavioral health services, Mindset by One Medical, is included as part of our standard, comprehensive primary care membership and our providers can effectively screen, diagnose, and treat everything from day-to-day stress to major depression.

Have more questions about managing your mental health? Our primary care team is here to help. Schedule a mental health visit with one of our primary care providers today.

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Michelle Konstantinovsky

Michelle Konstantinovsky is an experienced writer, regularly producing content on a variety of wellness-oriented topics ranging from breaking health news to fitness and nutrition. Michelle has a master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and has written extensively on health and body image for outlets like O: The Oprah Magazine, Slate, SPIN.com, xoJane.com, and The Huffington Post. To read more of her work, visit www.michellekmedia.com.

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.