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The Impact of Physical Illness on Mental Health

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By: Jennifer B. Baxt, LMFT, LMHC, PA

While there have been many advances made in the mental health field over the last quarter century, with mental health professionals acknowledging more and more mental illnesses and how they develop, one aspect of mental health is still not widely discussed. This is the actual impact that physical illness has on one’s mental health.

In fact, few people who are not in the mental health field even consider the part that physical illness plays when it comes to mental health. For example, when you get a cold, you may be a little irritable, and most of us would attribute the fact that we don’t feel good to that irritability.

However, it goes a little deeper than that. When we don’t feel good – even if feeling bad comes from a simple cold – we also tend to feel a little ‘blue.’ Things that would not otherwise be a big deal in our lives become a little larger. We do not respond or react as we normally would.

Fortunately, the cold does not last long, and we get back to being ‘normal.’ But what if that cold turned into a long term illness, or even a fatal illness? How does that affect our mental health? It affects every area of your life, including personal relationships, social interactions, work, and even religious beliefs and spirituality. With such illnesses, it isn’t even so much a question of not feeling good, in the physical sense. It is a question of not feeling good in the mental sense.

Naturally, when confronted with long-term illnesses, no matter how mild or serious they are, we experience a range of emotions, such as anger, worry, and sadness. We feel that our bodies let us down. We feel that we have no control. We may feel lonely or feel that people don’t understand what we are going through.

The biggest concerns, from a mental health standpoint, when it comes to long-term illness, are depression and anxiety. It is not at all uncommon for someone who is suffering from a long-term physical ailment to experience either of these conditions. It is, however, often overlooked and left untreated. This, of course, can be very dangerous, and as research has shown, even have a negative impact on the physical recovery process.

These days, doctors are more aware of how physical ailments affect our mental health, and they are on the lookout for signs of anxiety or depression in their patients. However, for the most part, your doctor will not be aware that a problem exists if you are not open and honest with them about your feelings and what is going on in your life.

Overall, it is perfectly fine and perfectly normal to feel a little blue when you are under the weather. But when it comes to long term illnesses, you need to be able to recognize the signs of depression and anxiety. When you see those signs, let your doctor know immediately, and seek treatment. Don’t try to ‘go it alone’ and do not assume that ‘it will pass.’

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About the Contributor

Jennifer B. Baxt, LMHC, LMFT was born and raised in south Florida. She went to the University of Florida for her undergraduate work and majored in communications. She then got her Master's degree in marriage and family therapy. While she was getting her Master's, she worked in a hospital Emergency Room as a patient advocate and family counselor. Since then she has worked with children, adults and geriatric patients.

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