The emotional, spiritual, and mental side of an illness, any illness, are often overlooked. Whether that be the causing factors that led to you getting sick in the first place, or the aftermath a long term or serious health issue can often have on your emotional and mental state. The fact is an illness is never just physical. Or just one thing. So the mental & emotional effects of illness, and especially a chronic illness such as M.E, adrenal or chronic fatigue, is twofold.
How does emotion & mental state cause illness?
We all know now how stress can effect our bodies and our lives. And have many long term effects.
Our bodies are not built to be in a prolonged state of stress. Your stress response is meant to save you from a sabre tooth tiger: a quick burst of energy and that fight or flight response to danger that allows us to run away and hide. But nowadays our bodies are stressed out over work, over deadlines, from trying to do all the things at once in our busy lives. Things we cannot ‘run away’ from.
The ‘fight or flight’ response causes your body to shut down all but the essential actions needed to run or fight. Your cortisol levels and your production of adrenaline increase. If this ‘fight or flight’ response is happening repeatedly for a long period of time yet you never actually run. Or deal with the cause of stress. This can lead to inflammation, adrenal fatigue, a huge disruption in your hormones and energy. Not to mention infertility and other major health issues.
The ‘shut down’ that happens during a state of stress causes your digestion to slow. Puts your fertility on pause. And interrupts your natural cycle of hormone production… and that’s just to name a few adverse effects!!
If you are under physical and/or emotional stress for a prolonged period of time it can lead to a number of health issues. Your adrenals become overworked. Your hormones become imbalanced, and your whole endocrine and hormone system is overworked and fatigued.
This is the main cause of M.E, chronic fatigue, adrenal burnout and fibromyalgia.
How does chronic illness affect emotion & mental state?
If you have ever had a serious case of the flu or a major health issue. One that stopped you doing the things you love, then you may have an idea of what an illness can do to your mental health.
Your health effects everything. Every. Single. Thing you do. It is also something we tend to take for granted. Until its not there. Have you ever sprained a wrist or ha a bad back and suddenly realised just how much you use that body part in everything you do? This is the same. Only its your whole body that isn’t working how you want it to.
And that’s the thing. Instead of accepting that our body has limitations and needs to rest and heal. We start to punish ourselves for needing to slow down. For not being able to do what ‘everyone else is doing’. Or even not being able to do what we did before. And this starts to take its toll.
You can start to lose confidence in yourself. Start to get down or feel depressed.
The mental & emotional effects of illness can be two fold. Pain and exhaustion also play their part. When you are constantly functioning at below average energy levels what you are able to do becomes limited. When you are constantly in pain, that too is exhausting and limiting.
Dealing with a long term illness. One that drastically changes your life, can cause depression, anxiety, even panic attacks. It can make you feel isolated, unsure of who you are, and like you are falling apart and being left behind.
So how do you change mental & emotional effects on your health?
Step one is prevention. Being more aware of the thoughts and feelings you are having. And why? As well as what is causing your mental and emotional state.
The biggest step here is managing stress. Being kinder to yourself and creating a self-care practice that supports your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing and priorities your needs!
Luckily there are some simple practices you can begin to incorporate to change your mental and emotional state and improve your health and wellbeing. In turn preventing illness.
Meditation. Speaking to a councillor. A mindfulness practice. Gentle exercise such as yoga or walking. Finding things to do & people to spend time with that boost your serotonin levels, make you laugh and give you energy.
They also happen to be many of the same things that will help you recover your mental & emotional health after illness….
Healing the mental & emotional effects of illness
No-one tells you about these things at the onset of an illness. You get a diagnosis. But often you expect the diagnosis to bring relief, knowing what it it you are dealing with. In actual fact, often times the diagnosis you get is only the first step on an unknown journey. One that can bring more frustration than relief.
Followed by the host of less desirable symptoms and feelings mentioned above.
The good news is you can change your mindset and feelings. You can turn things around.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this. I believe the key is a) managing your expectations b) accepting changes c) being kind to yourself!
Sometimes a bit of tough love is needed. Sometimes you need to stop beating yourself up. These are some of my recommendations and tips based on my experiences.
.Snap Out of It
So I will put the harshest sounding one first. Sometimes what we are feeling is a little bit of feeling sorry for ourselves. While that is a completely valid emotion. It is NOT something you should dwell on for long. That is not healthy.
Sometimes we can find ourselves hiding in this feeling sorry for ourselves stage. especially when things are hard. Therefore being a little strict on yourself is needed. Snapping yourself out of a pity party isn’t easy. You may need the help of family and loved ones. Or you can use some of the methods below to bring yourself back to the present moment, be mindful of your thoughts, and find gratitude for things that are going right in your life instead.
Remember it only takes you focusing on one day at a time and making that a good day to start forming better habits and thoughts.
Mindfulness truly is one of the simplest and most versatile holistic methods of changing your thoughts, mood & emotions, and focus.
It works by focusing your thoughts on the present moment. Not the past or worrying about the future. But here and now.
It can stop you wasting energy on things you cannot change and worrying over things you have no control over. It is wonderful for your mental healthy and emotions because it makes you focus on what is important. Your loved ones, quality time, and experiencing your life in the moment. I’ve written other posts on mindfulness: Everyday Mindfulness, and 10 simple ways to improve your day that you can read to find out more.
gratitude sounds like a big thing. But it’s not. There are small, tiny things in each and every day that you can be grateful for. You may have to look for them at first, but they are there. A small butterfly, the sound of bird song, the sun on your face while you drink your tea, a hug from someone you love, or sharing a moment with a colleague that makes you laugh…
The premise behind this practice is the more you notice the little things that make smile or bring you a moment of happiness in your day, the happier you will be overall. And the more you will feel like you have had a good day.
Once this becomes a daily habit you will be able to find the little things that make you smile and brighten your day almost without thinking. If you prefer, and if it helps, you can also keep a gratitude journal where you jot down 3-5 things that you are grateful for that day.
You can do this each morning, at the end of the day, or just throughout the day. There is no right or wrong way. The preference is yours, just as long as you are remembering to do it. Including this practice helps to lift your spirits each day, make you focus on the good moments and in turn improve your daily mental health. As well as drawing your focus away from some of the more negative mental & emotional effects of illness, or symptoms, that you may be dealing with daily.
Meditation is not only a time for you to sit in silent solitude and quiet your mind. It is a practice that can help you have more clarity in your day-to-day. It can help you to look at life’s stressed from a distance rather than getting caught up in the may hem, and it can help you to keep calm and centred throughout your day.
This not only helps you deal with stress and other emotions that come up in your life. It also allows you to ‘step away’ from the mental & emotional effects of illness and remove your minds focus from them or see them from a different perspective.
How you practice your meditations is up to you. There are many different methods, and now even apps that can help you. You can start with the Calm app or check out Youtube for guided meditations if you are just starting out or are curious. A yoga nidra practice is also a beautiful way to meditate and feel rested and rejuvenated after.
Gratitude’s, mindfulness, and meditation (as previously mentioned) are all wonderful tools for managing the effects of stress and how you or your body deals with it. But removing the causes of stress in the first place is always the preferred cause of action.
Dealing with the root cause is more beneficial in the long run than just managing your symptoms.
Managing stress can come in many forms. It can be giving yourself more time on a morning to get ready so you aren’t rushing to get to work. It can be saying no to that extra commitment at the weekend to give you time to yourself, or saying no to something at work that you know you won’t have time to do.
Of course there is no way to remove stress entirely so being able to balance and reduce the instances and effects on your mind and body can make a huge difference to your health.
.Manage your expectations
One of the hardest things when you get sick is the difference between what you think you can do, and what you can actually achieve. We are so used to being in control of our body and calling the shots, that when we cannot control things it can cause upset, depression, loss of hope and a whole host of other emotions.
To be able to appreciate your body, let it heal, and enjoy your days you need to manage your ideas of what is possible. Where a lot of us fall down is underestimating the mental & emotional effects of illness when we overestimate our energy and recovery.
Instead of thinking you will be back doing the same things as before in a week, or a month. Take things a few days at a time. Today I will try to walk round the block. Or today I will spend time with friends.
Then after each activity re-asses where you are at. If you are exhausted then that’s enough for today. If you still feel great then try doing another activity and so on and so forth.
.Accept the changes
Along with managing your expectations comes acceptance. Accepting that you are not the same as you were before your sickness. Mentally or physically. Accepting that you have less energy, or your body is capable of less is something that can be hard to get used to. And frustrating too.
The sooner you can accept this though the better you will be able to manage you illness and your healing. Your mental health too.
We are beings of energy. And like water we can become stagnant if we are still for too long. Movement gives us energy and makes you feel better. So it is so important to your healing and mental health.
If you have been on bed rest for a long time making sure to get up and move around will help to re-awaken your muscles and organs. Or if you are in pain slowly walking for 10-15 minutes will help get your blood circulation moving (which helps relieve pain).
If you are able a gentle exercise such as yoga or pilates is a good way for building strength and coordination whilst combining your movement and breathe and naturally improving muscle and joint pain and stiffness.
.Be in Nature
Fresh air can do wonders for our mental state and well-being. Re-connecting with nature also helps you to feel grounded. Literally.
Putting your bare feet in the Earth releases build up charge in your body. This would happen naturally before we all started wearing shoes. But we no longer have that natural connection with the earth.
So get your shoes and socks off and dig your toes into the grass. Walk around. Appreciate the flowers and the bird song.
Find time to go for a walk somewhere green for at least 30 minutes each day. Soak up the sunlight and appreciate your surroundings. You’ll be surprised how much this simple activity can improve your mood, your mental clarity, and how you feel for the rest of the day.
.Talk to someone
Sometimes the best option is to seek professional help. Speaking to your Dr or a councillor or therapist is often the best course of action and nothing to be afraid or embarrassed about.
We would hire a personal trainer to help us get our body in shape, so why not get a professional to help you get your mind into shape and healthy too?
.Stop burying your emotions
One of the worse things you can do for your body is bottle up your emotions and pretend you aren’t feeling something.
This is also one of the worst misconceptions about spirituality and a holistic way of living. Being spiritual does not mean you have to be happy all the time. It is healthy to feel and experience all emotions. Do not try to hide them or suppress them.
When you try to hide, suppress or bury your emotions you end up with them stuck in your physical body where they can build up and cause all sorts of damage and health issues later. Trying to numb yourself to emotions can lead to emotional eating/drinking etc. and other harmful ways of trying to block your feelings out.
There are healthy ways of processing feelings and emotions: Let them wash over you, they do not have to become who you are.
You can accept them but do not have to attach a story to them or try to rationalise them. Just let them be.
As humans are emotions ebb and flow like the tides. They are not fixed. They are always changing. So how you feel today may not be how you feel tomorrow. Be honest about how you feel & how your thoughts inform your feelings. Be Vulnerable. Everything in us is connected – mind, body & soul. So how you express yourself matters and shows up in every other part of your life. Embracing your feelings and emotions is good for you. Especially those emotions that come up around your illness & health and how the mental & emotional effects of illness make you feel.
Your meditation and mindfulness practice is also a good way to help you cope with emotions. These and practising gratitude’s daily help you to find some ‘distance’ from intense emotions and you may find them easier to deal with.
And remember, what ever you’re going through, you are not alone.