4 Reasons to Prioritize Your Emotional Health When Coping with a Medical Condition

By Sameer Ather, M.D., Ph.D.
January 28, 2021

When you're dealing with a medical issue, it's a constant source of stress. Keeping a positive outlook and maintaining emotional balance during this period isn't easy, but it is essential in the healing process. Emotional distress can have very real, physical effects on the body, and these can further aggravate your condition. By contrast, keeping your morale high during a period in which you are suffering from a physical health issue can help speed up recovery, or at the very least, help keep your condition in check.

Can a Medical Condition Actually Trigger a Mental Health Issue?

Medical problems can be very stressful, and there is an emotional dimension to any chronic disease. If your body is already fighting against an illness, it might not have the strength to fight off the negative effects of stress on top of everything else. If you're confined to bed rest, for example, it gives your mind a chance to wander, and this may lead to a tendency to overanalyze the condition you are in. Feelings of helplessness and lack of hope can be quite frustrating, and that frustration can build up over time. Likewise, certain medications, such as steroids, can have a negative impact on one's emotional balance. The added strain of suffering through mood swings and powerful emotions can leave you both physically and mentally exhausted, which further aggravates your symptoms.

Why You Should Keep an Eye Out for Warning Signs

A certain level of stress is to be expected with any medical condition, and negative thoughts are not always unhealthy. It shows you're aware of your condition, and that you're not in denial about your situation. Understanding the severity of your situation is a difficult process, and it will undoubtedly come coupled with some emotional distress.

But letting these feelings run wild can be very damaging in the long run. And sometimes, it can be difficult to spot the symptoms of a deeper emotional health issue.

Oftentimes, the effects of an emotional issue may look quite similar to the symptoms of the physical illness itself. Depression tends to be associated with headaches, back pain, and sleep problems—all very common symptoms. Since these warning signs cannot be observed independently of the physical illness, they may go unnoticed.

For this reason, if you have a loved one who is suffering from a medical condition, it's very important to be on the lookout for any sudden changes in their mood that can't be immediately correlated with a change in their physical condition or medication. These can be the warning signs of depression. At any rate, a person suffering from a serious medical condition should be encouraged to talk about their mental state, and let out their frustrations and negative emotions, instead of trying to cope with them on their own, or keep them bottled up inside. This can make it even more difficult for them to open up later on, because they will have already developed a kind of emotional self-defense mechanism against these difficult feelings.

How Emotional Health Problems Can Affect a Physical Condition

Emotional problems have physical, as well as mental effects. As mentioned earlier, depression can lead to physical pain. It can also bring about loss of appetite and sleep problems. People who suffer from depression may find that they either cannot sleep enough, or they sleep too much.

Stress itself can trigger a host of problems, ranging from headaches, to increased blood pressure, heart problems, and can even lead to diabetes, asthma and depression. All of these factors can negatively affect an existing medical condition. These symptoms can also interact with medication, such as blood thinners, making treatment more difficult than it should be.

Stress can also trigger the production of certain hormones, including cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones send a signal to the liver to produce more glucose. If stress levels are not kept in check, this can lead to the appearance of diabetes, especially in people who are at risk of developing this condition.

People who suffer from depression are also less likely to seek out proper medical treatment, or continue to follow a prescription, once they’ve been given professional advice.

How a Positive Attitude Can Help

Most of us are aware of the power the mind can have over the body. It’s what creates the placebo effect. In medicine, the placebo effect was generally seen from a negative perspective, in the sense that people were tricked into believing that a drug worked, even though from a scientific point of view, it shouldn’t have—it was simply their minds convincing their bodies that they were getting better. During the past few years, however, doctors have started looking into ways in which they can use this effect to help patients, not just as means of comparing the efficiency of other drugs.

Some studies have shown that this effect can actually affect the way in which an active drug works. Some patients were given a painkiller, and told it was a placebo. They reported that they didn't feel like the drug worked. The other group was given the same drug—this time labeled correctly—and they not only experienced the analgesic effect, but they reported an even greater level of relief than was expected.

A positive attitude can work in much the same way. Even though, by itself, it may not be able to treat the medical condition, it does wonders for improving your overall quality of life. Truly believing that you can, and will get better can help tremendously, by reducing stress levels and alleviating some of the symptoms associated with the condition, or the negative side effects of certain medication. It can also keep your energy levels high enough to let you channel it towards the real issue at hand.

What We Can All Do

One caveat: optimism should not be equated with denial in this situation. Accepting everything that scares you is a much more efficient way of freeing ourselves from your worries.

If you have a loved one who is struggling with a medical condition, don’t try to ignore the state they’re in. Acknowledge the fact that this must be very difficult for them, and encourage them to talk about it, as long as they’re comfortable doing so.

Facing this situation yourself? Likewise, you shouldn’t feel pressured to put on a brave face just for the benefit of those around you. Find ways to poke light-hearted fun at your problems, and encourage others to do so as well. You’ll find your problems are never as serious as you thought they were, if you look at them from the right perspective.

Sameer Ather, M.D., Ph.D., is a cardiologist based in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the founder & CEO of XpertDox. He is passionate about educating people on how to maintain their health and make the best possible medical choices.

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