If you happen to be working your way through a physical health crisis or struggle, please, please, please don’t neglect your mental health and emotional well being as part of the process.
I know, I know. Battling a chronic or acute illness is a project that consumes an enormous amount of focus and energy, both physical and emotional. I wouldn’t suggest that when you’re waging a war against a disease or debilitating condition is the right time to finally buckle down and process those trauma memories or lick that depression problem.
But the fact really is that when we are engaged in major efforts to heal and improve our physical health, that’s often when we most need to cultivate and support our own mental health.
Why? Because those battles take their toll on our minds and hearts.
Managing our emotional lives requires that we engage specific tools and skills. It requires us to cultivate effective stress management strategies. It requires us to get good at monitoring our thoughts for distorted thoughts that will drag us down into depression or stoke our anxiety.
It’s tempting, when we’re battling a physical ailment, to put those tools and skills that we might otherwise use to manage our emotional lives on the back burner. I had one person express to me that he felt he needed all of the energy and focus he had right then to fight his physical disease— so he was pressing “pause” on trying to manage his emotional life.
Trust me when I tell you, that pushing “pause” on managing your emotional life will not free up the energy you think it will.
In fact, in pushing “pause” on managing your emotional life, you’ll probably end up with even LESS energy and focus in order to fight your disease.
The main reason for this is that depression, anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and addictive patterns create energy vortexes of their own. If left unchecked, they really will suck all the available energy and focus you have right on out of you.
This is one of the main reasons why people who are depressed so often describe feeling exhausted. And anyone who has to cope with PTSD flashbacks or panic attacks can tell you that dealing with these symptoms is basically a full time job in itself.
When our physical health is in danger, we can lose sight of how dramatic the connection is between how we feel and function physically, and how we think and what we feel emotionally.
We can become so focused on the facts and hypotheses and tests and treatments involved in our somatic medical care, that we forget there is a whole universe inside our minds and hearts that needs to be tended to…and we are, by definition, the only ones who can really tend to them.
The good news is, once you get into the groove of identifying and using effective tools, skills, and strategies to manage your moods and behavior, you don’t have to keep relearning them. As you continue using them, they become second nature.
The better news is that they work.
The even better news is that if you are managing your emotions, your thinking, and your behavior, your physical health is likely to improve as a result.
Any medical doctor will tell you that bodies under stress have a hard time healing.
Any medical doctor will tell you that patients who are depressed have a harder time following through with self-directed treatment options and a more difficult time objectively weighing appropriate treatment decisions with which they are faced.
Any medical doctor will tell you that chronic anxiety is absolutely destructive to the body’s immune system, making it harder for medications and treatments to do their work.
Not only is it important to manage your thinking, your emotions, and your behavior during times of intense medical treatment, but it’s also vital you keep using your tools and skills to manage your emotions in the aftermath of even successful medical treatment.
There is a subset of people who come through successful treatment, and feel absolutely crazy because even though the treatment worked, they are suddenly (or still0 gobsmacked with anxiety and depression.
For what it’s worth: from a psychological point of view, this isn’t that weird. Medical and health crises can be overwhelmingly stressful. It makes a lot of sense that even after a successful outcome, the cognitive and emotional aftereffects are still there to be dealt with— especially if they’ve been put on the “back burner” during treatment itself.
Medical and health crises are high stress, high impact, potentially life-altering events.
In order to cope with them effectively, you really need to keep developing and using your psychoemotional toolbox.
As it turns out, putting your mental health on the “back burner” during a health crisis isn’t actually an option.