Physical health problems

Living with or experiencing a chronic illness can result in many adjustments and changes, such as loss of independence and not being able to do all the active things you used to do or usually enjoy. Anxiety and depression are common in people with chronic physical illness. The good news is that there are effective treatments for anxiety and depression. With careful management, the symptoms of anxiety and depression can be treated along with those of many chronic physical illnesses.


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What is a chronic physical illness

A chronic physical illness is an enduring health problem that will not go away – for example diabetes, asthma, arthritis or cancer. Chronic physical illnesses can be managed, but they cannot be cured. People who live with a chronic illness have a greater risk of developing anxiety and/or depression.

There are many different types of chronic physical illness and each presents its own challenges. Here is an overview of some of the more common types that may affect young people.




Cancer

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. Normally cells grow and multiply in a controlled way, however, if something causes a mistake to occur in the cells' genetic blueprints, this control can be lost. Cancer is the term used to describe collections of these cells, growing and potentially spreading within the body. As cancerous cells can arise from almost any type of tissue cell, cancer actually refers to about 100 different diseases.

Diabetes

Research shows there are strong links between anxiety and depression and diabetes. Approximately one in four people with type 2 diabetes experience depression and one in six with type 2 diabetes experience anxiety.

Approximately one in four young people aged 13-19 years with Type 1 Diabetes experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Asthma

Asthma is a condition of the airways. A person with asthma has symptoms that affect their breathing, often disturbing their sleep. Waking up at night and early morning due to asthma symptoms can leave a person feeling tired during the day. Having asthma can make it hard to join in with everyday activities, such as playing sport and other recreational interests. This can lead to feeling unmotivated and socially isolated.

Chronic pain

Chronic pain is pain that lasts beyond the time expected for healing following surgery, trauma or other condition, or it can exist without any clear reason at all. Left untreated, chronic pain can have a devastating impact on all aspects of people’s lives – such as sleep, sex, work, exercise and routine self-care. It can also severely impact personal relationships, social interactions and lifestyles.


What are the links between anxiety, depression and chronic illness?

For people with a chronic physical illness, anxiety and depression makes living with their condition even more difficult. It can make it harder for people to find the energy to eat healthily, exercise or take medication regularly. 

Anxiety and depression are more debilitating than the feelings of frustration or disappointment at having a chronic health condition. Some chronic physical illnesses, such as chronic pain, can be largely invisible so that sufferers can feel misunderstood and stigmatised by co-workers, friends, family and even the medical profession.

Having a chronic physical illness can also make it seem like an effort to connect with family members and friends. This can make the person with the illness feel isolated and make it harder for them to recover from depression.

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Helpful strategies and tips

Remember, you don’t have to sort everything out at once. It may take some time to deal with each issue. Ask for support if you need it – your doctor or other health professional can refer you to a mental health professional who has special training or experience in supporting people with chronic physical illness.

The following tips may be helpful in managing depression and anxiety.

  • Speak to your doctor about your concerns and discuss treatment options. Make sure you attend all of your appointments and have regular check-ups.

  • Learn as much as you can about depression and the chronic physical illness.

  • Accept help, support and encouragement from family and friends. 

  • Avoid feeling isolated by becoming involved in social activities, if you are able. 

  • Talk to others who are going through a similar experience, such as in a peer support group. 

It’s important to be kind to yourself, eat well, get regular exercise if you are able, try to get enough sleep and avoid alcohol. Make time for activities that you enjoy and allow yourself time to relax. Youthbeyondblue has some great tips to help you recover and stay well.

Danielle's story

Danielle was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was five and depression when she was 14. Now 23, Danielle gives an insight into managing both conditions.

To find out more and download fact sheets on various different chronic illnesses, visit www.beyondblue.org.au/resources, select 'Chronic physical illness' under 'Life stages and events' and click 'Search'. 

Where to get support

Sometimes you need more than the help of your friends and family. 

Anxiety and depression are medical conditions and so treatment from a health professional is sometimes necessary. There are a range of health professionals available to support you while you recover from anxiety and depression.

Support groups, websites and helplines can also be a great help.

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