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Chronic Medical Challenges and the Mind

Kelly Wilson, PhD, one of the founders of ACT

Cognitive Fusion with New Symptoms

A primary source of emotional distress for those living with many diseases relates to panic over new symptoms. Even experienced mindfulness teachers can find it difficult to recognize that the frightening attributions they assign to new symptoms are often nothing but mental constructs and are usually not based on facts. It can take years of mindfulness practice to appreciate the reality that all of our thoughts and beliefs are without substance. This is a very difficult concept to grasp until one has engaged in mindfulness practice for a certain period of time. 

Although it’s not a substitute for mindfulness practice, a new science-based form of psychotherapy known as ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, is a powerful way to learn to de-fuse from troubling thoughts, and to pursue life values. 

Depression and Anxiety

Living with chronic health challenges and the accompanying losses we experience commonly leads to increased depression and anxiety, and further suffering. If you think about the impacts of chronic illness on people’s lives, the various forms of which are listed below, it becomes obvious why depression and anxiety are so common within the chronic illness population.

  • • Increased loneliness 
  • • Loss of income 
  • • Loss of relationships 
  • • Loss of the ability to be a provider 
  • • Loss of career
  • • Loss of the ability to engage in favorite activities
  • • Loss of the ability to engage in activities that provide a sense of meaning and purpose 
  • • Chronic physical pain or discomfort
  • • Chronic fatigue 
  • • Chronic malaise 
  • • Chronic disability of any type

 Feelings of shame and many other factors contribute to anxiety, depression, and immense misery. Bear in mind that depression is epidemic in the healthy population. It is even more rampant in the growing population of people who live with chronic diseases and conditions, including several forms of cancer. And aside from preventing people from living a full life, depression results in poorer attention to self-care. 

Almost everyone who has ever experienced a serious illness, especially if it involved a dire diagnosis, a long hospital stay, or a long period of feeling awful, has experienced hopelessness, physical and emotional exhaustion, resignation, and depression. All of these are the result of no longer being able to engage in the activities that give our lives meaning, purpose, and joy. 


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