- What are Chronic Medical Conditions?
- Physical Illnesses Seen at Valley Behavioral Health
- Treating the Emotional Impact of Medical Illnesses
- Emotional Care for Children and Teens with Physical Disorders
- Emotional Care for Adults and Older Adults Suffering Physical Illnesses
- Helping a Loved One or Friend Suffering From Chronic Disease
What are Chronic Medical Conditions?
For millions of people, life with chronic illness is a reality. Chronic illnesses are those that last a long time and are generally unable to be completely cured – although some may be managed through lifestyle changes and medications. Chronic physical disorders include diabetes mellitus (notably type 2), hypothyroidism, asthma, and GERD. The emotional impact of a chronic illness can be as troubling as the physical illness itself.
Being diagnosed with a long-term medical illness – especially as a child or teen – can cause extreme, unwanted disruption in daily life. Depending upon the illness, it can lead to feelings of fatigue, alter physical appearance, and change a person’s ability to remain independent. Chronic illnesses can prevent a child from attending school or an adult from attending work, leading to fears about social isolation and financial instability. Chronic medical conditions can lead to tremendous fear in children who may be unable to understand why or what is happening to them. Daily life can be very hard for people who have chronic medical conditions as loved activities are given up, adaptation to the physical limitations can be devastating, and invasive treatments can severely impact quality of life.
While medicine has made impressive strides in the treatment of medical diagnoses, the psychological effects of these conditions however can persist, leading to major challenges in emotional and medical illnesses. One of the major fears that people who have chronic illnesses experience is the uncertainty of medical challenges – some medical problems may only occur sporadically while others may be permanent. Changes associated with chronic medical illnesses can lead to feelings of anger, anxiety, and stress, which can negatively impact – or trigger a dormant – mental illness. It’s important that anyone who has both a chronic medical condition and a mental illness receive treatment for both conditions to achieve the best treatment outcomes.
Physical Illnesses Seen at Valley Behavioral Health
Valley Behavioral Health Systems has much experience managing certain types of physical disorders. While we are unable to properly treat those who are medically unstable, our team of medical physicians and nurses are able to help treat certain physical illnesses our client’s face. We understand the need for combined treatment – treating medical conditions as well as any existing mental health disorders can improve treatment options and help restore a sense of hope in our clients. The most common illnesses we see are broken down by affected body system:
Nervous System Disorders: The nervous system is comprised of the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and sensory organs and is considered to be one of the most complex, but smallest, systems in the body.
Mental illnesses are considered to be disorders of the brain as they cause changes to the structure and functional ability of the brain. Treatment: Most mental illnesses are treatable with the right combination of psychotropic medications and behavioral therapies that may or may not be life-long.
Respiratory System Disorders: The respiratory system, composed of the nose, larynx, pharynx, trachea, bronchi, and lungs brings air into the lungs and transfers the oxygen from air into the bloodstream. Additionally, it helps remove the carbon dioxide from the blood and regulates the acid-base balance.
Asthma is a disease that causes inflammation of the airways and lungs, leading to shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing. Asthma treatment: Treatment of asthma is aimed at controlling the swelling of the airways and avoiding triggers for asthma attacks. Long-term medications for asthma treatments are used to help prevent or reduce frequency of the attacks. Short-term relief (often dubbed “rescue”) medications are for use during an attack.
Digestive System Disorders: The digestive system is composed of the gut, a series of organs including the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus.
Gastroesophogeal reflux syndrome (GERD) is a chronic digestive system disorder that occurs when stomach acid or bile refluxes (flows back) into the esophagus, which irritates the lining of the esophagus and causes heartburn and acid reflux. Treatment: Often over-the-counter or prescription medications such as antacids, H2-receptor blockers, and proton pump inhibitors.
Cardiovascular System Disorders: The cardiovascular system, composed of the heart, blood, and blood vessels, is responsible for the transportation of nutrients and removal of waste from the body. The lymphatic system is very closely related to the cardiovascular system.
Hyperlipidemia, or high cholesterol, involves higher-than-normal circulating low density lipoproteins (the “bad” cholesterol), which leads to fatty deposits in the blood vessels. Eventually these deposits may make it challenging for blood to circulate and causes blood vessels to become “occluded.” An occluded blood vessel increases risks for strokes and/or heart attacks. Treatment: The process of treating hyperlipidemia involves many aspects of care. Lifestyle changes include exercising and eating a healthy diet while medication may include “statins,” bile-acid-binding resins, and/or cholesterol absorption inhibitors.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, occurs when the blood pressure in the arteries of the body is elevated, which puts strain on the heart, potentially leading to stroke, heart attacks, peripheral arterial disease, and aneurysms. Treatment: Lifestyle changes such as eating a heart-healthy diet, getting more exercise, and quitting smoking. There are also medications used to decrease hypertension.
Urinary System Disorders: The urinary system is composed of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra and is responsible for filtering the blood and eliminating waste.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are an infection in any part of the urinary system, including the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra. Most UTIs involve the lower urinary tract infection but, without treatment, can turn into kidney infections, which are quite dangerous. Treatment: Prescription antibiotics and highly acidic juices such as cranberry juice can help treat UTIs.
Endocrine System Disorders: The endocrine system is composed of glands that secrete hormones locally or systemically. Hormones are chemical messengers released by glands that cause a change in a target organ.
Diabetes mellitus is a group of diseases that affect the way in which the body is able to use blood glucose – an important source of energy for cells, muscles, and tissues, including the brain. There are several types of diabetes, but the underlying result is the same – the body has too much circulating glucose, which can lead to serious health problems. Treatment: The treatment process for diabetes mellitus includes healthy eating, exercise, monitoring blood sugar (blood glucose), hemoglobin A1C testing, insulin therapy, and oral medications.
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland in the body does not produce enough of a certain hormone necessary for daily functioning and proper chemical reactions in the body. Treatment of hypothyroidism includes daily use of a synthetic thyroid hormone, such as levothyroxine, which raises levels of the thyroid hormone to sufficient levels.
Hypokalemia is a condition in which the levels of blood potassium are lower than normal, which can lead to hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, and muscular problems (such as muscle weakness or cramps). Treatment of hypokalemia may involve oral potassium replacement and a diet full of potassium-rich foods.
Hyponatremia is a condition that that occurs when the level of sodium in the blood is abnormally low. Sodium, an electrolyte, helps regulate the water in and around the cells of the body due to a number of factors. Treatment of hyponatremia is aimed at addressing the reason behind the low levels of blood sodium. This may include hormone therapy, IV fluids, and certain medications.
Treating the Emotional Impact of Medical Illnesses
Over time, the stresses and negative emotions of chronic illness can rob even the most resilient person of the emotional energy to continue forward with life. Absence of progress toward recovery or worsening of physical symptoms can easily trigger negative thought patterns that lead toward increased feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety. Unfortunately the emotional pain caused by the implications and reality of chronic disease can sabotage both recovery time and effectiveness of treatment, and inhibit the ability to have a positive, healing outlook.
Emotional Care for Children and Teens with Physical Disorders
The teen years are hard enough alone between the raging hormones and major developmental changes. When a teen is diagnosed with a chronic physical health issue he or she often experiences challenges in their normal development and an increased intensity in some of the challenges they face. Children and teens who are diagnosed with chronic physical problems often feel extreme concern and fears when their fears conflict with their developmental issues. Some of the common concerns children and teens with physical illnesses may face include:
Issues with body image: Children and teens feel remarkable pressure to fit into a certain type of body image and physical illness may challenge their beliefs. This can lead to increased fears and body image distortion when it comes to the clothes they wear and the way they look. To help children and teens deal with these types of issues:
- Encourage sharing of concerns about body image and the way the illness or treatment has impacted it
- Tell adolescents about potential side effects of medication or treatments and ways in which they can minimize the effects
Independence: Childhood and the teen years are often spent learning independence, which can be challenged by chronic illness, notably for the parents. Parents of chronically ill children and teens may resist the child’s desire to assert his or her independence.
- Teach the child self-care needed for his or her diagnosis
- Involve the child or teen in conversations related to his or her illness
- Encourage the child or adolescent to play a more central role in his or her treatment
- Encourage the child or teen to develop coping skills needed to address problems related to his or her illness
Friendships: It’s no secret that chronic health disorders and subsequent treatment can interfere with normal peer relationships and the ability to attend school – the primary social environment for children and teens. Children and teens often derive much of their self-worth and acceptance from others and treatments can cause interference.
- Discuss concerns about sharing the illness and treatment with friends
- Encourage the child or teen to spend as much time with friends as possible
- Foster a sense of humor
- Assist friends in being supportive of your child
- Help your child find ways in which they can respond if they are teased
Treatment: Many children and teens will attempt to make their own decisions about management of their chronic illness without first telling anyone – including healthcare providers. Developmentally, this is normal behavior, however noncompliance can lead to extra – potentially dire – healthcare complications necessitating additional interventions.
- Encourage dialog between the child and his or her healthcare team
- When complications arise due to noncompliance, encourage a discussion between your child about what happened rather than yelling at him or her
- Encourage problem-solving skills related to his or her illness
Emotional Care for Adults and Older Adults Suffering Physical Illnesses
Coping with a chronic medical illness means meeting the emotional and mental challenges of the disorder as well. It’s recommended that those who are struggling with physical illnesses take a realistic, yet positive approach to the disorder. It may seem impossible to adapt or feel positivity about a physical illness, but with time, self-care, and a proper treatment team, it can be done. Sometimes, the help of a psychiatrist who specializes in treating chronic illnesses may offer you support and ideas for promoting proper self-care during these time. Here are some additional suggestions for coping with chronic physical illnesses:
You come first: You need to take care of you – don’t let fears or worries about your illness get in the way of enjoying your life, eating well, exercising, and keeping active.
Connections: Maintain and establishing meaningful, quality relationships with your loved ones and friends. Talk to your physician – there may be support groups for people with your disorder (or something similar). These groups can be a tremendous source of support and assistance and allow you to help others who are struggling.
Advocate: You are your own best advocate. Research your condition, find the best doctors in the field, and don’t accept the doctor’s word at face-value. If you don’t understand what he or she is suggesting as a treatment, ask for additional clarification – you’re not being a pain, you’re advocating for yourself.
Overwhelmed: It’s perfectly okay to be overwhelmed by your medical diagnoses. Remember that while it’s frightening at the moment, you’ll learn ways to cope and how to best handle the situation.
Routine: Keeping a routine of work, errands, chores, and hobbies is really important – now more than ever. By keeping a normal routine, you establish a sense of stability throughout the uncertainty and chaos of your illness.
Helping a Loved One or Friend Suffering From Chronic Disease
When a loved one or friend is diagnosed with a life-altering disease or other physical problem, you may feel completely helpless. Mountains of research has shown that families and loved ones can play a tremendous role in helping their loved ones cope with chronic illness. It’s vital, when a person is diagnosed with a chronic illness, to make certain he or she feels loved and cared for. The ways in which you interact with the chronically ill person can make a huge impact on the ill person. Here are a few key ways you and your loved ones can help your loved one during his or her time of need:
Support: If your loved one is in need of support during a chronic illness, it’s time to step up and do your part. This may mean learning more about the illness, taking on some errands and chores, and – most importantly – offering emotional support and a shoulder to cry on.
Honesty: Adopt honesty as the best family policy and put an end to any lingering family secrets. Don’t attempt to protect others from bad news or hide a serious illness from the rest of the family and loved ones. Instead, communicate directly and be open with your family and loved ones about what you’re struggling with.
Children: Include your children, no matter their ages or their ability to understand the situation. Children still appreciate being told what is going on (even peripherally) in their lives. Sometimes children believe that they are the cause of the problems or major illness, so talking to them openly and honestly can reduce some of their fears and anxiety. Children can be a huge source of laughter and love for the individual who is ill and all those around him or her.
Help: People who are close to the loved one will want to help in any way they can, so it’s very important to suggest specific things they can do to make life easier on all directly affected. Rather than say, “we need help now,” suggest concrete ways in which they can help – cooking a meal or caring for children are two examples of successful delegation of assistance.
Choosiness: It’s vital to remember that not every person on the street needs to know that your loved one is ill; this information should be shared carefully. During the illness, some personal relationships will flourish while others may wither away. Share the news with those who will provide a strong foundation for support and strength during this time.