6 Steps to Care for Your Mental Health After a New Diagnosis
No matter how strong, resilient, or pragmatic you are, being diagnosed with a chronic condition can cause some emotional turmoil.
While there’s no one “normal” reaction to a new diagnosis, there is a range of common reactions, including shock, grief, anger, confusion, anxiety, and depression. “There is a lot of variability in how people adjust to a new diagnosis and live with chronic conditions,” says Abbey Hughes, Ph.D., a rehabilitation psychologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in Baltimore.
Not all initial reactions are negative, however. “Sometimes,” Hughes says, “there’s a sense of relief or clarity for people who are diagnosed after years of not knowing what’s wrong.”
Interestingly, at the same time a person is feeling relief or resolution, they may also experience feelings of depression, anxiety, or any other emotion, and their mental and emotional reactions can change over time, too. Emotions may change in intensity, reappear occasionally, remain permanently, or disappear altogether. But they don’t have to wreak havoc on your life. The key is learning how to cope with them.
Here are some strategies you can use to help yourself handle any emotional and mental repercussions of your diagnosis.
1. Give Yourself Time to Process Your Diagnosis
Even if you were aware of the potential of such a diagnosis, a doctor’s confirmation can be a lot to absorb. While the diagnosis may leave you feeling low, it doesn't mean you'll feel depressed forever. Hughes says, “Many people who initially report depression find that their symptoms improve or resolve after an initial period of adjustment.”
It may take a little while for the reality of your situation to sink in. Be kind to yourself as you go through this initial period, and understand that it’s normal to have some hard feelings as you adjust.
2. Learn About Your Condition
Anxiety is often due to fear of the unknown, particularly with progressive diseases, like multiple sclerosis, or unpredictable ones, like psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself about your condition. “Education about the disease and support for both the patient and their family are critical to coping and moving forward,” says Leigh Charvet, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Doing some research can help you feel more informed and empowered to manage your condition and live your best life. If you search online, make sure you’re seeking information from reputable sources, such as nonprofit foundations and associations dedicated to your condition, as well as publications, studies, and reports from recognized medical or academic institutions. Medically reviewed resources, like those here on our site and app, also provide trustworthy information.
Your doctor is one of your most knowledgeable partners, as well. Don’t be afraid to bring your questions to them.
3. Build a Support System
You can’t do it all alone—and you shouldn’t. Living with a chronic medical condition can be isolating, which can be detrimental to your mental health. On the flip side, having a strong and uplifting social support system can help improve your mental and emotional well‑being.
“This initial period [of adjustment] often includes not just learning more about the condition, but connecting with others, which can help reduce feelings of uncertainty or anxiety,” Hughes says.
Opening up to friends and family is a great place to start. You may also want your support network to include others who understand what you’re going through. There are many support groups comprising people who have similar conditions and with whom you can talk about your challenges, triumphs, and daily experiences. Look for your community on sites like ours or Facebook, or you could search for an in-person group near you.
4. Practice Self-Care
Being good to yourself is critically important to your mental and emotional well‑being. While you’re coping with your new diagnosis, don’t forget to practice the basics of good mental health. Good self-care includes:
- Eating well, including avoiding foods that tend to exacerbate your condition or cause symptoms or flares
- Getting adequate exercise through walking, stretching, yoga, or other means you enjoy
- Practicing mindfulness and meditation
- Getting enough restful sleep
5. Know When It’s Time to Seek Help
If the above tips don’t seem to be helping you, you may need professional backup.
“Usually, if people just don’t feel ‘right’ or don’t feel like themselves, that’s an indicator that they should seek professional help,” says Robert W. Charlson, M.D., a psychiatrist at NYU Langone Health in New York City and an assistant professor in the departments of neurology and psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
“If a person is not able to fulfill the roles that they used to, or if other people are noticing changes,” Charlson adds, “that may be a red flag and a sign that something more severe is going on.”
As a rehabilitation psychologist, Hughes works with people across all stages of their diagnoses. “It’s never too early or too late to prioritize healthcare,” she says, “and mental healthcare is healthcare.”
6. Find the Right Kind of Professional for Your Needs
You may wonder where and how to seek that professional help, and what kind of mental health professional you should see.
Finding a provider who specializes in working with people with chronic health conditions is paramount, and it’s important to consider things like how many years a provider has been in practice, patient or client ratings (available on sites like Healthgrades), and board certification. But you should also seek the right kind of mental health professional for your needs. Here are a few specialties to consider:
“[Rehabilitation psychologists] work with individuals with disabilities and chronic health conditions to identify and address individual and environmental factors that contribute to their wellness and ability to fully participate in their daily lives,” Hughes says.
For some people, that could mean learning strategies to manage symptoms like fatigue, pain, or mood changes. For others, according to Hughes, it could mean “participating in individual or family therapy to address changes in roles and relationships.”
If a person is experiencing grief over the loss of a specific function, such as walking, and is adjusting to using a wheelchair, she says that “treatment may focus on acknowledging or validating that and helping connect to others with similar experiences.”
According to Charlson, it often makes sense to get a full evaluation from a psychiatrist. “If a person has complicated medical issues,” he says, “a psychiatrist can make sure there is not a medical issue that is contributing to [an emotional or mental issue].”
As psychiatrists are medical doctors, they can order medical tests to check for vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems, and other physical issues that could be at play. They can also prescribe medication, if necessary, or refer you to another type of mental health professional, such as a neuropsychologist or rehabilitation psychologist.
Hughes says that people living with chronic medical conditions may benefit from a number of different therapies:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of psychotherapy focuses on helping people change maladaptive thought patterns—such as the thought “Life will be miserable if I need a wheelchair”—by challenging them.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): Hughes says, “[ACT helps people] try to accept the patterns and emotions as part of life. It can help people cope with uncertainty rather than trying to get rid of the uncertainty.”
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): This modified form of CBT includes four principles: mindfulness, acceptance and change, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation.
Being diagnosed with a chronic medical condition isn’t easy, but you can turn to valuable resources and qualified professionals to help you care for not only your physical health but also your mental and emotional health.
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