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The Two Way Street: Medical Conditions and Mental Health

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Studies have shown that a strong relationship between medical conditions/problems and mental health exists. It is estimated that up to one-third of individuals with a serious medical condition experience symptoms of depression. Chronic illness can trigger or exacerbate depressive (feelings of helplessness or despair) or anxiety symptoms (concern about the future), not to mention both the mental and physical stress of coping with a prolonged illness. The limitations of the medical condition significantly alter a person’s life, which could create huge and seemingly overwhelming situations. Self image, independence (or lack of), and social interactions are obstacles that are put to limits. Lastly, emotional problems could slow down or prevent full recovery from medical conditions.

The severity of a medical condition typically varies with each person and that person’s subjective ability in addressing the challenges a chronic or prolonged illness can bring up. Medical challenges are not limited to the aging population, as hearing loss, vision impairment, endocrine disorders, gastric issues, surgery, as well as autoimmune diseases could happen to all age groups. Any one of these could create feelings of loss (loss of mobility, social interaction, resources, finances, and one’s own mortality). The rate for depression occurring with other medical illnesses is quite high:

• Heart attack: 40%-65%

• Coronary artery disease (without heart attack): 18%-20%

• Parkinson’s disease: 40%

• Multiple sclerosis: 40%

• Stroke: 10%-27%

• Cancer: 25%

• Diabetes: 25%

Cleveland Clinic: Copyright 1995-2009, The Cleveland Clinic Foundation

The relationship between medical issues and mental health is a two-way street. Mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse have a strong link to physical ailments. Sleep and fatigue due to mental health problems affect and stress us, and if we are not given enough time to replenish our body we become more susceptible to illness. When we are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks our body experience what is referred to as flight or fight syndrome, which is just one clear example of the stress these mental health issues have on our body. This would also make our body more prone to illness and breakdowns.

Another factor to consider in addressing medical conditions and mental health is medication. Some medications have side effects that could amplify emotions such as anxiety or depression. If a person has substance abuse problems, the risk of abusing prescriptions is greatly increased. Energy level or lack thereof, creates less ability to socialize and increase feeling of isolation, and medications can amplify these feelings as well. Also, some medications may have other side effects such as a change in sexual desire, which could affect self confidence and relationship issues.

It is important to understand that medical challenges could have a huge impact on a person’s psyche. Identify emotional issues that may surface or are surfacing, and have a dialogue with your support group to educate them on what you are currently feeling and what you may experience later on. Try to develop regular sleep patterns and resist the urge to isolate. Your doctor can educate you and your loved ones on medications and side effects. Inviting a loved one or significant other in on such a discussion will only serve to educate them better on what you are feeling and how best to cope with it. There are some exercise programs out there such as water aerobics that may be possible for some with doctor approval. Monitoring your diet is another way to stay both physically and mentally healthy. Lastly, seek out a therapist who has experience working with individuals with medical conditions to get the best help for your situation.

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