There are many life-changing factors to take into consideration that will have an immediate effect on those who suffer with a chronic illness. For individuals living with a condition such as arthritis, decreased mobility and an increase in pain while trying to perform even the simplest tasks are to be expected. What you may not know is that there is also a direct link between chronic illness and loneliness and depression. So, why do so many people suffering from chronic illness have these feelings? And what can be done to combat the mental and emotional stress that often comes with Chronic Illness?
What is the Link Between Chronic Illness and Loneliness?
People who receive a chronic illness diagnosis like arthritis are forced to deal with symptoms of fatigue and stiffness accompanied by excruciating pain in their joints. These individuals may begin to experience feelings of embarrassment about their condition or the social stigma attached to it. It becomes difficult for them to do things they were able to do years ago. Even the smallest task, like going to the grocery store, can seem like a big deal. In addition to not feeling well enough to leave the house, they may begin to withdraw from family and friends because It may be difficult for them to explain why things are suddenly harder for them than before. The risk factors for depression in chronically ill people are more significant because of this sense of isolation and are often forgotten about. With physical pain being the primary focus of their disease, the mental health of those who suffer often takes a back seat. This leads to an overwhelming sense of emotional strain. Over time, someone who is dealing with a chronic illness may find it easier to withdraw socially then talk about their condition and the way it makes them feel.
What are the Impacts of Loneliness and Chronic Pain?
According to a study published in Perspectives on Psychology, feeling lonely can shorten your lifespan by 26 percent, making it deadlier than both alcoholism and obesity.
Being isolated and having a decreased social life can have devastating impacts on the body, including weakened immune system function, increased stress on the cardiovascular system, and depression.
Decreased Social Life
When a person is diagnosed with a chronic illness, their social life will likely soon suffer because of it; however, feelings of loneliness are not only a direct result of a shrinking social circle. Many experience loneliness because they feel they do not have anyone to relate to, no matter how many friends or family they have around them. It may seem near impossible to explain the pain they are feeling. They could be surrounded by people at any given time and still feel helplessly lonely.
Shorter Life Spans
For those who are chronically ill and do spend most of their time alone, the chances of a shorter life span are even higher. One study shows that those who live alone and suffer from a chronic illness are at a 32 percent higher risk of earlier death than those who live with another person. Humans are programmed to be social creatures. Our bodies respond better to stress when we are part of a community. When basic needs are not fulfilled, it has a negative impact on the body.
Depression and mental illness can also lead to a host of other life-threatening behaviors. Besides the social consequences, some may begin to turn to self-medication to ease feelings of loneliness and stress in their life. The American Psychological Association suggests substance abuse and alcoholism may become a coping mechanism for many, which puts an already comprised immune system at an even higher risk. When added to the feelings of isolation and mental instability, this creates somewhat of a vicious circle. Decreased appetite and mood even further the adverse effects making it harder to close the gap.
Loneliness is not something that happens over-night; instead, it develops slowly over time. A great deal of physical and emotional energy is needed to deal with the side effects of depression, and without the proper outlets, it may seem near impossible to combat.
What Can be Done to Treat Loneliness While Chronically Ill?
It is essential for those who are suffering from depression as a result of chronic illness to reach out to others. Though it may seem awkward or uncomfortable, letting others know what you are experiencing can ultimately make you feel better.
Connect with Friends
Make it a point to connect with friends and loved ones regularly. Find ways to express how you are feeling and let them know what they can do to help you, whether that’s spending time indoors watching movies together, cooking together, or even by making a weekly wellness phone call or visit.
Find a Support Group
Many support groups focus on assisting others to deal with their illness and the feelings of isolation that come with it. These groups will give those who are experiencing trouble communicating how their illness is affecting them access to people who can easily relate to what they are going through and give them a sense of community. They will be able to talk through their highs and lows and share insight into how they cope and what works for them. They will be reminded that it is important to check in with themselves and know that the feelings they are having are not something to be ashamed of.
Find a Therapist
Speaking with a therapist or a trained professional is another excellent resource. They can help a chronically ill patient find ways to communicate with their friends and family and help channel their emotions big or small. A therapist can also help their patients gain insight into healthy communication and lifestyle habits, ultimately changing the way they view their illness and the way they live with it day to day.
Find a Creative Outlet
Those living with a chronic illness may also find comfort in a creative outlet like art or writing, which may not only benefit them personally but help others who are in the same situation. Studies show that creativity can boost your mood as well as make you feel productive. If the chronically ill can find ways to contribute and interact with society, they are far more likely to thrive, both mentally and physically.
Those dealing with a chronic illness must remember to be kind to themselves and take it day by day. Above all else, they must learn to have patience with themselves and those around them. The feelings of loneliness and isolation may not go away quickly, and some days may be worse than others. Still, by being in tune with their body and mind, they are allowing themselves the opportunity to feel better.