Medical illness. The chances of encountering conditions like cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and neurological disorders can be high. Moreover, it's highly likely that within your family, that you have witnessed the challenges of chronic medical conditions first hand. In this blog post I will uncover the often-overlooked aspects of medical illness. We will delve into the psychological landscape of living with a medical illness. This can provide you with a better understanding of what your relatives who have medical illnesses or might also offer insights into your own experiences in case of medical illness. By gaining this understanding, you will not only feel supported but also realize that you are not alone in your journey. In my upcoming post, we'll explore strategies to address and navigate these challenges effectively. The blog post draws upon the main points presented in Donoghue and Siegel's book, 'Sick and Tired of Feeling Sick and Tired: Living with Invisible Chronic Illness' (2002)
To start, what are the psychological effects of medical illness on us?
Sense of ambiguity and uncertainty: Dealing with chronic medical illness can bring about a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. Symptoms often vary and can be subjective, making it challenging to quantify or communicate the extent of your discomfort. In other words, you may struggle to express how you truly feel, and only you have an intimate understanding of what you're experiencing. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to feelings of being unsupported and invalidated by others.
Self-doubt: Another common consequence is the emergence of self-doubt. Despite your awareness of feeling unwell, you may find yourself questioning the validity of your condition. Thoughts like, "Am I truly sick?" or "Is it all in my head?" may arise. You might even begin to wonder if you brought the illness upon yourself by consuming something harmful or exerting too much physical effort. These self-interrogations can intensify feelings of uncertainty and self-blame.
Diagnostic dilemma: Especially if you have not yet received a diagnosis, the aforementioned points can be experienced even more intensely. When medical illnesses are challenging to diagnose, doctors sometimes lean towards attributing symptoms to being psychosomatic, which can make you feel invalidated and misunderstood. You might even be thinking that knowing the name of the disease would be better, as it would enable someone to understand and validate your symptoms, as well as believe in your concerns.
Unpredictability and loss of control: Even after receiving a diagnosis, the feelings of uncertainty and unpredictability about your future can persist. Chronic diseases inherently challenge our innate desire for independence and control over our bodies and our lives. With a chronic illness, you might experience a sense of losing control over your own body, limited health can also hinder your ability to shape your desired future.
Fear of the progression of the illness: It is natural to experience fear regarding the course of your illness. Thoughts like "Will I remain chronically ill forever?" or "What if my illness progressively worsens to the point where I am unable to walk?" may cross your mind. The inherent uncertainty of our illnesses can frequently bring about feelings of depression and a sense of defeat.
Self-dislike: It is not uncommon to begin thinking, "Who would want me when I am sick?" or "Why can't I overcome this illness?" These thoughts can lead to a lack of self-respect and acceptance, particularly when you feel unaccepted by others around you.
Interpersonal insecurity: Interpersonal insecurity often accompanies self-dislike. There may be a fear that others will not accept or understand you due to your illness, leading to potential rejection. Feelings of shame or embarrassment may arise as a result of your illness, particularly if it falls into a category with low social acceptability, such as ZIV.
Guilt: It is not uncommon to experience feelings of guilt when you are ill. Many people associate illness with being "bad" for various reasons. This can lead to self-perception as a burden or a belief that one caused their own disease, despite the lack of control in such situations. Taking responsibility for something that is often beyond your control can be devastating. Furthermore, individuals may feel guilty for being unable to perform daily tasks or fulfill their roles as family members as effectively as they desire. In an attempt to compensate, they may overexert themselves, which can result in exhaustion and potential harm to their well-being.
Many other negative emotions: Medical illness often gives rise to a wide range of negative emotions. It is common to experience feelings of anger, asking oneself, "Why me?!", depression can take hold, leading to thoughts like, "There is no point in trying to change something...", frustration may arise, with a belief that one's efforts are meaningless. Feelings of isolation can also be prevalent, as individuals may believe that nobody understands them.
Heightened body awareness: Having a medical illness can often lead to increased sensitivity and awareness of your body and its changes. Concerns may arise regarding symptoms that previously went unnoticed or didn't cause alarm. For instance, you might wonder, "Is this chest pain a sign of a heart attack?" The need to be more vigilant about your body can arise as a means to prevent the progression of the illness. However, this heightened awareness can also lead to restlessness and self-doubt, questioning whether you should have sought medical attention or taken preventive measures sooner.
Forced to adapt and navigate life: Despite having the illness, your life does not stop. You still need to carry on with various aspects of life, including household chores and maintaining friendships, among other obligations. Balancing these responsibilities alongside coping with your illness can be a significant challenge.
The above points provide insight into the common experiences and emotions that often accompany medical illnesses. However, it is essential to acknowledge that individual experiences may differ. It is also crucial to recognize that these challenges can be addressed and navigated with effective strategies and support. In my upcoming blog post, I will delve into the practical steps you can take to make your life easier while coping with a medical illness.
Psychological support for relatives and people suffering from medical illness
As a psychologist, I am here to provide the help and support you need to navigate the psychological aspects of your medical illness. Whether through individual, couples, or family therapy, I offer a safe space to explore and cope with the challenges you may be facing because of your medicail illness. Remember, you don't have to face this journey alone. Together, we can navigate this challenging event in your life, making it a little easier along the way. Feel free to contact me for in-person sessions in Veldhoven or convenient online therapy options.
Donoghue, P. J., & Siegel, M. E. (2002). Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired: Living with invisible chronic illness. W.W. Norton & Co.
Lorig, K., Holman, H., & Sobel, D. (2007). Living a healthy life with chronic conditions: For ongoing physical and mental health conditions. Bull Pub.