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The Role of Chronic Physical Illnesses in Mental Health

The Role of Chronic Physical Illnesses in Mental Health

Many people in the world today live with some type of chronic physical illness. This can range from disorders such as scoliosis, a congenital birth defect that causes a curvature of the spine, up to chronic migraines. Some may suffer a traumatic injury through war or an accident. Chronic diseases like fibromyalgia and even something simple like arthritis can cause long-lasting pain. Those undergoing cancer treatment will sometimes say the cure is as bad as the condition itself.

What all these things have in common is constant and unending pain. Sometimes the pain may lessen for a little while. Sometimes people may learn to cope with it. Sometimes it comes and goes. But there is always pain or the fear of pain coming back.

So it is no wonder that those that deal with a chronic painful condition often develop a mental disorder as a result. Not only because of pain itself but sometimes getting the injury or illness can be the result of a traumatic event. For that reason, it is important for those that live with chronic illness or pain to speak to a mental health professional as soon as possible. Here are some common mental disorders that are experienced by those that live with these chronic and painful conditions.


Depression by far is the most common mental disorder that comes with a chronic condition. The reality that this is your life and it may only get worse from here is enough to give anyone feelings of dread and sadness. For many people who live with chronic pain, it’s hard to find reasons to justify living when it hurts so much. Depression can quickly spiral down into suicidal ideation, especially if the chronic condition prevents the patient from enjoying things they used to. If you or someone you love begins to talk negatively about themselves, loses interest in life, or begins to exhibit signs of self-harm, it is important to contact a mental health professional right away.


Pain can also keep someone from sleeping, which makes people tired and irritable. In these cases, it’s easy to become angry and irritated, snapping at people or losing your temper as a result. The body does most of its healing during sleep, so without sleep, you heal slowly and feel worse. Those that are struggling with insomnia may try to self-medicate in an unhealthy way, such as using alcohol, to go to sleep.


Anxiety is another major factor in the lives of those that live with chronic conditions. Sometimes you are trapped, waiting for the next flare-up to happen. You might begin to wonder what your next test result will look like. The thought of what ability or activity you like that you lose next is frightening. This may lead to experiencing anxiety attacks from the sheer stress of waiting, unknowing what is going to happen next. This is why for most people with a chronic condition, it’s important to monitor anxiety levels. Sometimes they may even be prescribed medication to help their anxiety

Cognitive Issues

Those that experience chronic pain often have trouble focusing on tasks or thinking about certain concepts. This is because the brain is so focused on dealing with pain that it struggles to keep up with the rest of its functions. The memory may also be affected, as well as becoming unable to make decisions. This can strongly impact someone’s life negatively, which will often lead to depression and anxiety disorders.

Substance Abuse

Perhaps one of the most well-known results of chronic illness is the want to self-medicate. Sometimes prescription medications may not be enough to completely nullify pain, especially for those with nerve damage. Because of this, some people may turn to substances to cope with their pain. This becomes a substance use disorder (SUD), where the person no longer feels like they can function without the substances they use.

The common substance of choice is usually alcohol, followed by drugs such as opiates/opioids. This can turn into an addiction and becomes a dual diagnosis, which can be tricky to treat. These cases require specialized care which is only impacted further by their underlying chronic conditions.

How to Help

The best way to help anyone with a chronic condition is to be supportive and understanding. Listen when they talk and take the time to understand their feelings. Chronic pain and illness are hard for most people to imagine, so more often than not, these people feel isolated and alone. Let them know that you love them and will be there for them if needed.

If you are one with a chronic condition and feel alone, reach out to your local mental health treatment center. They will often know any specific support groups in the area that you can join. This will give you a support network of people who understand what you are going through and can offer genuine friendship. If you or someone you love is living with a chronic condition and are living with one or more of the disorders above, reach out to a mental health professional for help.

Living with a chronic illness is full of pain and confusion. You may not have ever expected to be in the situation that you are now, and you may be alone and worthless. Despite everything, your life still has value and is worthy of help and care. At Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, we have professionals waiting who can help you. Nobody should have to deal with their troubles alone, and at Acera Health, we are happy to help carry some of your burdens. We offer treatment programs that can be tailored to any need you may have and treat a wide array of disorders. Learning to cope with pain is a difficult process, but our staff is more than ready to help see you through. If you or someone you love is living with chronic pain and are struggling with a mental health disorder, call (949) 866-3461 today.

LMFT, Program Director at Acera Health | Edited & Medically Reviewed

Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.

Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.


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