It is not uncommon for individuals suffering from serious or life-threatening physical health problems to also develop psychological and mental health problems. Research by Matthew Bambling published in the February 2006 issue of Psychotherapy in Australia shows that treatment for mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and general stress can help reduce the severity of physical conditions such as a cardiovascular disease, diabetes and various types of cancers. (1)
The link between psychological well-being and physical health has also been clearly established and defined by the World Health Organization. In a report in 2004 completed in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation the WHO defines heath as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of a disease or infirmity”. The WHO also states that “there is no health without mental health”. (2)
Research conducted since then has linked the application of psychotherapeutic techniques with improvements in the quality of life for people with both mental and physical health problems.
THE EFFICACY OF PSYCHOTHERAPY
A very comprehensive study completed in Canada in 2013 by the Canadian Psychology Association indicated that psychological treatments can assist in the treatment of physical conditions with drugs and other medication by improving patients’ outlooks and mental states.
In the study, patients with various physical health conditions, in particular coronary heart disease (CHD), were monitored. The study found that patients who participated in psychotherapy on a group and individual basis had lower rates of depression and anxiety than those who obtained drug treatment only. Most significantly of all, the study recorded the mortality rate among the patients with CHD who had undergone psychotherapy as 20% less than the mortality rate among the patients who had not. (3)
Because of evidence such as this gained from various studies carried out in recent years, it is now generally accepted that psychotherapy can improve human response to medication by helping to reduce the stress, depression, anxiety and exhaustion often experienced by seriously ill patients, helping their bodies to preserve the mental and physical energy needed to fight the spread of their illnesses.
PSYCHOTHERAPY AND HEALTH MANAGEMENT
Treating the mind to help the body is an increasingly popular concept. Many doctors who regularly treat patients for asthma, chronic pain and cancer incorporate some form of psychotherapy into their treatment plans.
Many new studies into treating patients with asthma have identified psychotherapeutic interventions as critical in controlling the stress and anxiety that contributes to the condition. Patients can be taught to identify mental and emotional triggers of asthma attacks and manage their body’s response to those triggers in a way that minimizes symptoms and makes it easier for emergency medication such as inhalers to take effect.
The link between stress and the risk of asthma attacks is well documented, even in children. (4) Psychotherapists can teach sufferers to cope with stress, make positive lifestyle changes and reduce the number of stress triggers that are contributing to their breathing problems.
CHRONIC PAIN CONDITIONS
Chronic pain impacts between 120 million to 1.5 billion people throughout the world. New research by The DANA Foundation links certain factors in brain chemistry to the existence of chronic pain.
Many chronic pain medications, however, have only limited effectiveness, especially in the treatment of very severe chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and allodynia. For many patients experiencing limited response to standard medications such as opioids, NSAIDs (nonsteroidal ant-inflammatory drugs) and antiepileptics, psychotherapy can make a dramatic change by increasing overall well-being and helping to improve the response to the medication.
Typical psychotherapeutic treatments for chronic pain include cognitive behavioural therapy, lifestyle changes, stress reduction and relaxation training. Meditation is also known to be beneficial.
Depression, fear, stress and anxiety are all very common in people who have been diagnosed with cancer. According to the American Cancer Society cancer can and does affect sufferer’s emotional health.
Medications are often used to treat these symptoms, but for some patients the medication cause side-effects that are as problematic as the original issues. Using psychotherapy to treat the stress, depression, fear and anxiety can help eliminate the need to use these medications and allow the patient to avoid these additional health issues.
Cancer Research UK warns that depression cancer patients can impact their ability to eat a balanced diet and get the sleep they need. Fatigue and lack of sustenance hinder the human body’s ability to work with the medication it is given to fight off an illness.
In these cases psychotherapy can improve the body’s response to medication by treating the mind for depression and any other emotional health issues that can interfere with appetite and sleep patterns.
These emotional health issues can also result in the manifestation of physical symptoms such as pain, extreme fatigue and gastrointestinal problems. Medications are often used to treat these symptoms, but for some patients the medications cause side-effects that are almost as problematic as the original issues. Psychotherapy can help eliminate the need to use these medications and allow the patient to avoid these additional health issues.
Cancer Research UK also reports that psychotherapy treatment for depression, anxiety and fear is effective in about 80% of cancer patients to improve their quality of life and successfully treat emotional health issues. (5)
SEEKING HELP FOR DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, STRESS AND FEAR
For people facing severe chronic physical health conditions, it is important to realise that additional mental and emotional health issues such as depression, anxiety and stress are normal and can be managed.
In a major study completed by the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health in the UK , it was found that psychological intervention, pharmacological interventions, or a combination of both was important in the treatment of patients suffering from chronic health problems.
Seeking assistance and talking about the symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress is essential. Working with condition specialists and psychotherapists in a team approach provides a comprehensive treatment plan to help patients improve their mental and physical well-being and increase their quality of life.
- (1) Brambling, M. (Febuary 2006). Mind, Body and Heart: Psychotherapy and the Relationship between Mental and Physical Health. Psychotherapy in Australia, 52-59.
- (2) World Health Organization, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. (2004). Promoting Mental Health. Geneva: World Health Organization.
- (3) Dr. John Husley, et al. (2013). The Efficacy and Effectiveness of Psychological Treatments. Ottawa: Canadian Psycological Association.
- (4) Seija Sandberg, et al. (2000). The Role of Acute and Chronic Stress in Asthma Attacks in Children. The Lancet, 982-987.
- (5) Cancer Research UK. (2014, July 4). About Depression and Cancer. Retrieved October 24, 2014, from Cancer Research UK: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/coping-with-cancer/coping-emotionally/cancer-and-your-emotions/sadness-and-depression/about-depression-and-cancer