Friday, January 23, 2009

Depression and Chronic Illness

Studies suggest that at least one in four individuals who have a chronic illness also has a certain degree of depression during the course of their illness. While it may seem natural to feel depressed and frustrated by persistent or chronic illness, depression is a serious medical condition that can be treated effectively in most people.

The chronic emotional and intellectual stress associated with prolonged health problems is believed to initiate changes in the brain's stress response system that may set the stage for depression. People who have suffered a stroke or heart attack, those who have had heart surgery and cancer patients and survivors are particularly at risk.

Effective treatments are available to manage depression such as psychotherapy (talk therapy), art therapy, music therapy, behavior modification therapy, support groups, spiritual counseling, exercise and medications. Yet for many reasons some people never receive adequate care to help them overcome depression as a co-existing disorder in association with their chronic illness.

Ten Warning Signs of Depression

Depression is often complicated and compounded by other emotional, intellectual (mental) and physical symptoms, which may range from mild to severe, and may wax and wane over time. If you notice any of these warning signs, and they interfere with normal day to day activities in excess of and beyond what the usual limitations of your physical/biological chronic health issue talk with your doctor.

1. Prolonged feelings of desperation, hopelessness and unexplained crying spells.

2. Significant changes in appetite and sleep patterns.

3. Irritability, angry explosions, agitation, anxiety, pessimism, worry and/or continued indifference.

4. Loss of energy and enthusiasm, persisten feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness.

5. Loss of enjoyment from once pleasurable activities such as reading, art appreciation, music or movies for example.

6. Inability to concentrate of make decisions.

7. Withdrawal from social contacts and isolation.

8. Unexplained aches and pains

9. Persistent significant changes in thinking, memory or other mental abilities such as confusion or cognitive function which can be caused by illnesses and medication side effects but could also be due to persistent insomnia and/or depression.

10. Recurring thoughts of death and suicide.

Things you can do or help your loved one with:

  • Watch for signs of depression and talk to your doctor if you have any question about your medication side effects, physical limitations and the possibility of depression as an unrecognized co-existing disorder.
  • Exercise your mind. Regular mental activity - specially things that are intellectually challenging-- can help keep the brain sharp as we age or limit our physical activities.
  • Manage Stress. Chronic stress can damage nerve cells and increase forgetfulness.
  • Stay involved in activities that you enjoy and stay socially connected with friends and family as much as possible. These are important predictors of quality of life issues that will help prevent depression.
  • Join a support group early on in your journey through chronic illness. The sooner you are able to express the wide range of emotions and sort through them the sooner you will be able to move into learning effective coping skills and adjusting to your life with a chronic illness.
  • Seek out a professional therapist or counselor express your emotions, learn coping skills and behavior modification strategies that can help you manage stress and deal with emotional and behavioral issues in a private setting.
If you or someone you love has a chronic illness such as post surgical hypothyroidism after thyroid cancer or any other chronic illness and is struggling with persistent depression talk to your doctor about support groups in your area or a referral to mental health services professional. There is help in your local community. 

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