Recognizing the mind-body connection to manage chronic illness
People who have been diagnosed with a chronic illness often suffer in silence. Sometimes, even their closest friends and extended family don’t know what they’re going through.
It can be even more challenging when the chronic disease has no outward signs, especially when it is rare or poorly understood, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Sam Sears, MD, director of physician services for OSF Behavioral Health, says it’s a good time to recognize that many chronic illnesses come with a significant additional burden.
“The changes of life and the deficits that come from those illnesses very frequently can wear down somebody’s coping abilities and increase their risk for becoming depressed as well.”
With some diseases, depression is so common that medical providers are trained to look for it in patients who have a particular diagnosis.
Dr. Sears says, “We know for certain that depression is very common post-stroke. We also know that people with significant cardiac issues suffer much higher rates of depression, with the scary reality that if we’re not treating the depression, the rates of having further cardiac events go up significantly as well.”
When not managed properly, diabetes can result in amputation of an extremity or loss of vision. That can restrict a person’s capabilities and self-image, which leads to anxiety and depression. Chronic pain severely impacts a person’s quality of life, making it difficult to be an active participant in many things they used to enjoy.
Lung-related issues come with unique challenges, according to Dr. Sears.
“We see in folks with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma, other conditions that decrease the ability to manage good oxygenation – you definitely have increased rates of anxiety disorders in that population.”
In general, Dr. Sears says being faced with chronic disease makes people confront their mortality and chips away at the denial defense mechanism that allows most people not to think about their death every day. That, he says, can be extremely disturbing, leading to sleeping difficulty and other issues that worsen overall health and wellness.
Most importantly, Dr. Sears says understanding the mind-body connection is important because mental health issues such as stress can cause physical symptoms and vice versa. For example, thyroid issues, including hypothyroidism, can cause a set of depressive symptoms that can be resolved with proper medication to treat the condition. So, managing mental and physical health issues is equally important.
Dr. Sears stresses, “Depression and anxiety are going to act like an amplifier plugged into a guitar. Is the guitar going to make sound without the amplifier? Yes. Is it going to make it nearly the level the amplifier is causing it to? No.” He adds, “So if we can unhook the amplifier, we have inherently improved that individual’s quality of life.”
The key message, Dr. Sears says, is that there is help through any number of approaches, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication and even exercise. In some cases, a combination of approaches helps provide significant improvement in a person’s outlook and coping skills.
Exercise is medicine
Erin Kennedy manages the Center for Healthy Lifestyles at OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington. She has seen first-hand how exercise has resulted in better physical health and, for some patients, less stress, anxiety and improved mood.
Kennedy says exercise is medicine. It can release important mood-altering endorphins, even with minimal exertion.
“If you are making dinner, there’s no reason why you can’t side-step, you can’t march in place, and you can’t dance in your kitchen, right? Any kind of movement you’re doing -- we should never poo poo. It’s all activity. We’re burning calories. It’s getting us motivated to maybe do a little more, and it makes us feel good about who we are.”
That was the case for 63-year-old Joe Whitcomb of Bloomington. Whitcomb is a Type 2 diabetic who underwent heart bypass surgery because of a major artery blockage. Following his surgery, Whitcomb was sent to cardiac rehabilitation, and he continued with regular workouts that improved his health significantly. Whitcomb has lost 50 pounds. He was able to stop taking one medication, and now he requires a much lower dose of insulin after he committed to hitting the gym five days a week.
Whitcomb starts his day early as a coordinator of clinical data at OSF St. Joseph. He visits the gym at the Center for Healthy Lifestyles as soon as he’s done with his day.
“I turned it into part of my job. So, every day I go to work and when 3:30 hits, it’s time to sign off of the computer and sign on to the exercise bike.”
Whitcomb considers himself lucky to have a supportive wife and children, and they’re his motivation. His son just got married, and his daughter is about the graduate from college. He wants to be around for other milestones. That support and hope keep Whitcomb from the kind of mental health struggles others experience. For them, he offers this perspective.
“If you sit at home and you don’t do anything, you’re gonna feel the same. (With exercise) If nothing else, you’ll feel tired, and at least you got your workout in and at least you’ll sleep better. You never feel worse after a workout.”
For those who have limited mobility, Whitcomb suggests trying chair exercises using soup cans or milk jugs. If they need an example, he advises, “There’s a Youtube video out there for everything.”
Looking for the right kind of support? An OSF Behavioral Health navigator can be reached at (309) 308-8150, and online support is available 24/7 through OSF Silver Cloud.