Who Gets Sick?
Contrary to popular belief, anyone can develop a chronic or life-threatening medical condition at any time during the course of life. The odds increase with aging, but serious, debilitating diseases do occur at all stages of life. New Age hype leaves many people believing that if they buy the right health food products or anti-aging products and take great care of themselves in terms of nutrition, exercise, and sleep, they will remain healthy well into old age—this is a myth. Living a healthy lifestyle does improve the odds of staying healthy, but it is far from a guarantee. Like tens of thousands of others living with serious chronic medical conditions, I had always done the right things in terms of nutrition, exercise, and sleep.
Life With Illness
While healthy people are out and about in the world, working full-time jobs, spending time with family, or simply having fun, many of us living with chronic medical conditions are not well enough to live this way. It is a challenge to live with the vicissitudes inherent in life while not feeling well. We face a reality that often entails some combination of unremitting fatigue, malaise, pain, and/or disability. For many, it can be difficult to work more than a few hours a day (if at all), and it is commonly difficult to maintain relationships with spouses, family, and close friends or even to parent one’s children. Not only can these limitations lead to ruined careers and family life, they present challenges in terms of involvement in all types of activities that give life meaning.
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 this population.
Impacts of Living with Chronic Medical Conditions
- 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
Cognitive Fusion as a Source of Suffering
Pain, disability, and fatigue do cause suffering, but suffering is magnified when we fail to recognize that the thoughts related to symptoms are nothing but transient brain secretions. When we are fused with those thoughts, mistaking them as factual, we create a level of suffering that is unnecessary and preventable. Fortunately, we can learn to de-fuse from those thoughts.
It’s common to hear people say I’m depressed. Assuming ownership of an illness or a state of mind takes a terrible toll emotionally, and from a psychoneuroimmunology perspective it is very damaging to our health, because the emotional distress results in physiological stress. Identifying with our illness is one of the quickest ways to exacerbate it. That is why mindfulness training, which enables us to see this identification as a mere thought, is such an essential skill for those of us living with day-to-day health challenges.