Every type of physical illness can bring along with it emotional pain. However by taking steps to overcome the emotional pain and coming to a place of acceptance of the physical illness anyone can live a happy life. To help understand what type of emotional impact a physical illness can have on someone’s overall life and what someone can do to overcome the emotional pain of a physical illness, I have interviewed therapist Kathy Kelly.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a 1990 graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Later I did my training in Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Samaritan Counseling Center in Birmingham, Alabama. I am a clinical member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors at Fellow level. I serve on the board of Atlanta based Society for the Integration of Spirituality and Psychotherapy. With this as my background I am able clinically to be credentialed as a professional counselor but also have the ability to help clients reflect theologically. My academic work includes courses in scripture, church history, liturgy, and music, but I do not use my own faith to teach or advise my clients. Rather, I work with clients within their own spiritual orientation to rely on their spiritual strength.”
What type of an emotional impact can a physical illness have on someone?
“Grief, isolation and spiritual dryness often accompany physical illness. Any medical condition can exacerbate emotional distress. It is important to note that in many cases mental symptoms are directly caused by a medical condition. For example, ‘symptoms of anxiety in an individual with a parathyroid adenoma that resolve after surgical excision restores a normal serum calcium level.’
While physical illness can cause a chemical imbalance and the resulting symptoms can often be alleviated pharmacologically, it is more common that the emotional distress that comes when we are getting sick or hear that we have been diagnosed with an illness is best addressed by a counselor. Fear, uncertainty, grief, loneliness, despair and depression can permeate our souls in the instant a physician explains a diagnosis. Anxiety may come early in the journey with an illness. Depression can come after a long battle has worn us down. Grief is experienced all along the continuum as we must deal with the losses that accompany being sick. These losses include the sense of wellbeing that comes with the diagnosis, changes in lifestyle, one’s ability to pursue hobbies, self-sufficiency and even modesty.
Grief is often too narrowly understood as something only experienced when a loved one dies. A twenty-four hour stomach virus can cause grief, too. Those twenty-four hours and all that we wanted to spend them doing are lost and grieved. When an illness is chronic or terminal, the losses pile up and we experience a range of emotions including, but not limited to, the shock, anger, bargaining, denial and acceptance made famous through the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. As a pastoral counselor my goal is to help clients move toward wholeness as they call upon their own spiritual resources.
Loneliness and isolation accompany anxiety and depression. No emotional response is exacerbated by illness more than loneliness. The isolation has become more pronounced by changes in healthcare and information technology. Physicians who deliver the bad news of a new diagnosis are typically not the family physician who signed your child’s birth certificate and a parent’s death certificate. It is more likely a specialist whose focus on a particular disease results in a sense of objectification. After the initial and, often, only conversation with this specialist, the patient is likely to Google the name of the disease and in absolute solitude read descriptions and statistics about the disease. If the disease process or the side effects of treatments lead to physical changes in a patient’s appearance, embarrassment can lead to loss of self-esteem and lonely isolation.”
How can someone overcome the emotional pain of a physical illness?
“Emotional pain is experienced when we panic, give up or withdraw at a time when we desperately need to remain calm, garner spiritual and material resources, and stay connected. This starts with communication with physicians and getting not just a second opinion but finding a physician who will listen. Second, do not allow yourself to become objectified through a treatment plan that only attacks the disease. Seek out a counselor who is a good fit for you. As with finding a physician, who will listen, find a therapist you like and with whom you feel comfortable. This is as important as the professional competence of the therapist. Third, talk with someone you trust in your own faith community or join a faith community. Here the important thing is to connect with your experience of whatever it is that helps you feel centered. In this way you can begin to find ways to regain your balance through faith, acceptance and accommodation to living with the new realities that accompany your illness.”
What type of professional help is available for someone that is having a difficult time overcoming the emotional pain of a physical illness?
“Starting with health care professionals, seek out specialists with documented success treating your particular disease but who also give a sense of caring about you as a person. Recognizing that no one person is enough, ask for referrals for specific physical, emotional and spiritual symptoms. Examples of these professionals may include physicians who specialize in palliative medicine, therapists and support groups. If the emotional impact is severe, ask your therapist about consulting with a psychiatrist who might prescribe medication along with talk therapy.
Pastoral care should not be neglected. The importance of ritual, community and the spiritual practices of compassion, forgiveness, and communion are not only important to spiritual growth but to wholeness and wellness.”
What last words would you like to leave for someone that is experiencing emotional pain from a physical illness?
“Be patient with yourself. Acceptance and faith are matters of daily practice. Just like with the treatment for the physical illness, overcoming the emotional impact takes time, rest, and a regimen of self-care.”
Thank you Kathy for doing the interview on tips for overcoming the emotional pain of a physical illness. For more information on Kathy Kelly or her work you can check out her website on acuitycounseling.com.
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