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Mental Health and Chronic Illness

Last updated: 08-04-2020

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Mental Health and Chronic Illness

Anxiety is a little bit like writing a piece for an assignment – the more you throw in the mix the more complicated it gets. I have lived with anxiety for the majority of my life starting in childhood and bouncing along in the background into my 30s. I have what you would define as generalised anxiety disorder so many things in my life have caused me anxiety over the years. Such things include interacting with others, being looked at (not ideal when it comes to school /workplace and giving presentations – you can read my anxiety episode regarding presentations here), germs and just an overwhelming fear of new environments and new experiences.

As well as living with mental health issues for a big part of my life, I also have Tourette Syndrome and it was my mid-twenties when I noticed the first signs and symptoms of chronic illness. Of course to begin with I believed it was all in my head because that’s what negative mental health does it makes you doubt yourself. However as my symptoms increased and the intensity of them became so unbearable I struggled to hold down my job, I knew something needed to be done. It took me many years to finally get a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and several years later to an additional diagnosis of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). My physical health was in tatters with endless bouts of fatigue, digestion problems, headaches and dizzy spells – to name a few (I actually have in excess of twenty different symptoms) but I wouldn’t have guessed that it was my mental health that would take an equally big hit and create a humungous wall to scale.

This particular article isn’t to discuss the many physical challenges of chronic illness (and trust me there are more than one articles worth to cover) but the agonising mental battle that comes with it. I spent so long fighting to get diagnosed and not only that fighting to get people to believe there was something wrong with me, that I honestly believed once my illnesses were identified I would feel better, happier and more at peace but that was sadly not the case.

After diagnosis I still had the constant battle of people not believing there was anything wrong with me but it was the battle I was having internally with myself that was the biggest foe. Whilst realising there was no cure for my chronic illness was horrendous, the realisation my life would never be the same again was gut wrenching. My chronic illnesses had robbed me of my career, my independence and life as I knew it but more than that they had robbed me of my future. Making plans for the distant future were difficult but so were making plans for the following day as I could never predict how my body would respond from one day to the next. Mentally I was a mess, constantly beating myself up about my limitations, hating my body for letting me down and torturing myself of reminders of the life I could have had if I hadn’t become ill. My anxiety surrounding health got worse as I would obsess over getting ill and feeling worse than I already did and the future filled me with nothing but impending doom. I also found myself comparing my life to everybody else my age who were having amazing careers, moving into their own places, getting married and having children all whilst I had none of those things and as a result I felt dejected, useless and nothing short of a failure. All I wanted to do was separate myself from people because the pain was too much to bear.

Whilst I had spent parts of this time on antidepressants to curb my anxiety, I also attended anxiety and depression workshops and 1-1 counselling. It was here that I learnt about the world of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and how much your thoughts have a knock on effect on your feelings and behaviour. This combined with being able to talk to someone about how I truly felt about my illnesses and my future slowly but surely started to clear my cloudy mind. So much so that in time I was able to come off my antidepressants and learn to face my anxiety head on.

The more I have learnt to clear my mind the easier it has become to accept my situation and as a result my mental health. My physical health will not change but my mental health has because I have learnt to alter how I think and become my own friend and not my foe. My chronic illnesses are not my fault, I am not to blame. I cannot have my old life but then again I am not the same person I was back then. Does the future scare me? Sure it still does but nowadays I try to take each day as it comes rather than getting caught up in the why, what and when. The biggest thing I have learnt is to stop comparing myself to others because we are all different and whilst they may be ahead of me in this minefield of life, we are all on different paths and I am just in the lane of the tortoise right now but in a lane nonetheless. By changing my thoughts it has given me new hope for the future that I never had before and for that I am grateful.

With regards to my anxiety, I still experience bouts of nervousness and worry and with these current trying times it is hard not to. However I have learnt that feelings of anxiety pass and whilst in that moment it feels like the worst thing in the world, it does disappear and you do come out the other side. For me recovery from mental health problems isn’t about being cured, never to experience anxiety or low mood again, it is about accepting who you are and being ok with that. By accepting me for me and the life I have, I now have the strength to face how I am feeling and know I will come out the other side stronger than before.

My top 3 tips for keeping a healthy mind when dealing with chronic illness;

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