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Embracing Balance: How caring for your mental health can support physical health conditions

We all know that our emotional health can have an effect on our physical health. But it is easy to dismiss the impact physical health problems can have on our mental wellbeing. In this article, we will explore the relationship between our physical and mental health. We will also look at how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can provide support.

How do long term health conditions affect mental health?

In the UK, over 15 million people are dealing with long-term health conditions. A diagnosis of a chronic physical health problems can take a great deal of adjustment. Pain, impact on lifestyle, and declining capabilities amongst other things, can all have a profound impact on mental wellbeing.

Approximately 1 in 3 people dealing with long-term physical health problems face mental health issues like depression or anxiety disorders. These problems include diabetes, cancer, chronic pain, and autoimmune diseases, amongst others.

People with cardiac problems face an increased risk of mental health disorders. Research shows that 20-40% of cardiac patients experience symptoms of anxiety or depression. Similar rates of depression and anxiety are experienced by women during menopause.

How can CBT help?

CBT is widely recognised as an effective therapeutic approach for many mental health problems. It can be successfully tailored to supporting people with physical struggles.

Our therapist, Nicky Edmans, has a background in nursing and experience working with both adults and young people in the management of a range of emotional problems including those with long-term physical health problems.

 We asked Nicky to explain more about how CBT can help people with physical health problems, and how she approaches treatment with them.

What are the treatment methods and goals you use with clients who have long-term conditions?

“CBT helps people with all kinds of long-term conditions (LTC) to adapt the way they think and act. That way, they can cope more confidently with their condition. Treatment methods include identifying unhelpful reactions to their LTC, mood management, setting goals, breaking the unhelpful cycles of inactivity and avoidance, and achieving a balanced lifestyle.”

How long is treatment?

“CBT is generally considered short-term therapy — about 10 to 20 sessions. Factors to consider include:

  • The type of disorder or situation.
  • The severity of symptoms.
  • How long the client has had symptoms or has been dealing with situation.
  • How quickly client makes progress.
  • How motivated client is to make changes.
  • How much support they receive from family members and other people.”

What are the main struggles these clients face?

“Long-term illness, whether mental or physical and even more so when you have both, inevitably leads to poorer quality of life. For most it means reduced income, increased poverty, and risk of debt, decreased independence, increased social isolation and exclusion, all of which can perpetuate the depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety are linked with low motivation, low self-esteem and low self-worth, which leads to poor self-care, and poor management of physical health.”

Why might it be tricky for some to benefit from CBT?

“Not everyone with poor physical and mental health has arrived at a place where they can benefit from CBT. Clients need to have some insight. The client is expected to be active in sessions and participate in the thinking. CBT is targeted at clients for whom this number (10-20) of sessions will enable them to make changes. Sometimes people don’t feel able to make the changes or aren’t in a place at the moment where they have the insight or feel they can make changes.”

How do people with physical health problems respond to treatment, and what benefits do they get?

“There are lots of possibilities for CBT helping. Very often CBT can help with the coping side, with problem-solving and with managing relationships and social networks. Men, in particular, will often say they have never talked to anyone about it. They stay at home; they never go out and meet other people. Peer support is tremendously beneficial when managing physical illness, so developing the ability to access support is important.

CBT can also improve a client’s ability to manage their illness, improve cognitive attributions, and can usually improve independence and exercise tolerance, with less time spent in hospital, less use of medication, decreased impact on employment and social activities and improved quality of life.”

Finding help for mental health

If you are living with a long-term physical health condition and find yourself struggling with your mental wellbeing, you don’t need to face this alone. With the right support and a tailored treatment plan, you can navigate the mental health impact of physical problems. CBT can give you the science-backed tools that will boost your resilience and confidence.

If a physical health condition is impacting your life and mental wellbeing and you would like to know more about how CBT can help you, our consultant psychologist, Dr Sian Thrasher, offers a free 15-minute telephone consultation specifically for you to discuss CBT and treatment options.

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