The Emotional Effects of Physical Illness

illness 2At some time in our lives, many of us will have a serious illness or love someone who has a serious illness. Both the illness itself and the treatment for it usually affects the ways we think and feel. There are often a lot of emotional effects from illness including:

  • Anxiety and depression (constant worrying thoughts, fearing the worst, constant feelings of unhappiness)
  • Tension and pains in our muscles, brought about by stress rather than the actual illness
  • Feeling unable to relax at all
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling faint
  • Indigestion
  • Difficulty in sleeping/early waking
  • Irritability
  • Losing interest in sex
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Feelings of hopelessness and despair

Even with improved medical treatments and people surviving very serious illnesses nowadays, there’s still the feeling that things might go very wrong and we will die. The emotional impact can be overwhelming and can affect our relationships, how we socialise, our work and our spiritual beliefs if we have a faith. These effects can, in themselves, make us feel isolated from family and friends.

It’s easy to feel that other people don’t understand, even those closest to you, and that’s why it’s important to talk to the people around you and make sure that your family and friends know that you need them at this time. Don’t put on a ‘brave face’ if that’s not how you’re feeling even though you don’t want to upset them.

If they’re trying to support a loved one, or a child, with a serious illness, try to listen to what they’re saying and understand what they’re going through. If the illness is successfully treated, they will eventually feel better emotionally but this will take time. It’s important to understand that some drug treatments, such as steroids, affect the way the brain works and can cause anxiety and depression.

If it’s you or your partner who has a serious illness, both of you may feel worried about how you will cope, how your relationship will survive and how you will manage financially.  Don’t be surprised if you feel resentful and angry – this is normal because your lives have been turned upside down and, unless you got together when one of you already knew they were ill, it’s not what you expected.

It’s often difficult to ask for help with anxiety or depression, particularly when we’re physically ill because we don’t want to appear ungrateful to the medical staff who are providing physical care, it’s hard to admit we’re not coping and we often think nothing can be done about it. If you’ve been anxious and depressed in the past, you may feel that friends and family think it’s part of being ‘you’ but whether or not that’s the case, you will need as much support as possible at such a difficult time.

If you’re in pain, everything is more difficult to bear and if your mobility is affected, it will mean that you’re very dependent upon others for your most basic needs. Where your relationship is concerned, this may mean that your partner also becomes your carer and this is something that couples often find incredibly difficult. The intimate things that you once kept to yourself, can no longer be private and this will almost inevitably affect your sex life. However, it doesn’t mean that it will always be the case – this is a testing time, but with patience you may well be able to work through it together. Again, talking about your fears is a way of working through them; try to bear in mind that this hopefully won’t be your lives forever and if the prognosis is good, life will return to some sort of normality.

One of the more likely times to experience anxiety and/or depression when you’re physically ill is when you’re first told about your illness. Another time is after having major surgery and when there are unpleasant side-effects from treatment. If your illness isn’t responding to treatment, that’s a source of huge worry and anxiety and it’s natural to feel devastated by this.

If the illness comes back after it seemed as if things were improving, a recurrence of, say, a second heart attack can seem even more devastating than the first time.

When an illness is progressive, like multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, this is very difficult to come to terms with, whether you’re the sufferer or it’s your partner or sibling who has the illness. A progressive illness has long-term implications for everyone, but there are organisations which can provide support and information (see below).

If you are caring for someone close to you with a progressive illness, recognise that you need to care for yourself too, otherwise life will become too difficult to cope well. Because a progressive illness has consequences regarding life insurance and mortgages it’s important to seek professional advice as soon as possible, regarding this.

Financially, if one of you isn’t able to work, things will be difficult – make sure that you know of any benefits that you’re eligible for and apply before things become untenable and you run up debts.

The following can also be a huge support:

Macmillan Cancer Support: Seven days a week from 8a.m. to 8p.m. Freephone 0808 808 00 . For help with money worries and advice about work, to someone who’ll listen if you just want to talk

Arthritis Care: helpline:  0300 790 0400 email: Provides information and support for patients with arthritis and their families and carers.

Multiple Sclerosis UK: helpline: 0808 800 8000 Provides information on multiple sclerosis (MS), including MS and depression, plus there’s a forum for sufferers to post their views and how they’re feeling.

National Kidney Federation: helpline: 0800 169 09 36; email: Provides support services for patients with kidney disease and answers questions that you may have.

Samaritans: helpline: 116 123(UK) and 116 123 (republic of Ireland) ; email: 24 hour service, 7 days a week. National organisation offering support to those in distress who feel suicidal or despairing and need someone to talk to.

Epilepsy Action: helpline: 0113 210 8800 (UK); Freephone helpline: 0808 800 5050  email: Provides information and support for people with epilepsy.

British Heart Foundation Heart helpline: 0300 330 331. Plenty of information available on their website and there’s an e.mail form to contact them.

British Lung Foundation: helpline: 03000 030 555; there’s an e.mail form on their website to contact them too. Lots of information, support and understanding for people affected by lung disease.

Counselling can also be of great benefit to people who are suffering with a physical illness and for those close to them, who may be their carers. Whether you are the patient of a carer, it’s rarely easy to get through the dark days and it’s not a weakness to accept that sometimes all of us need help.

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