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Can A Focus On Emotional Wellness Help Fix Chronic Disease?

Posted by Siobhan Bulfin on Apr 4, 2019 2:31:29 PM

In recent years diabetes has skyrocketed. About 9.4% of the American population currently has diabetes. While that percentage is staggering, the numbers will only rise further. Another 84.1 million people have pre-diabetes, meaning diabetes is set to explode nationwide.

Interestingly enough, emotional health issues are taking the same trajectory as diabetes. Over 18% of Americans experience mental illness episodes each year.

emotional wellness and chronic diseaseThese numbers beg the question: are diabetes and emotional issues linked? If so, how do they impact each other?

Another problem? Patient to clinician ratios are low and the US will face a physician shortage by 2025. With diabetes and emotional illness rates rising, healthcare needs to explore alternative solutions to this mounting problem.

Perhaps it’s possible to address both issues at once. Could treating emotional health be part of the solution to caring for people with diabetes?

Emotional health and diabetes: they’re more related than you might think

What many people don’t realize is that diabetes and emotional distress share many similar symptoms. Take a look at this list:

  • Depression
  • Tension
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sleep disturbances

This short list only scratches the surface of crossover symptoms which raises this question: does poor emotional health set people up for diabetes? OR does diabetes set people up for emotional problems? While research hasn’t fully answered these questions, it’s important to dig deeper to understand how both conditions are linked to provide whole person care.

Emotional risk factors associated with diabetes

Emotional wellness is the ability to handle life’s stresses successfully. Emotionally well individuals know how to deal with difficulty and not bend under the pressure. Diabetes, however, erodes many of the body’s systems including emotional stability.

There’s a strong connection between diabetes and the development of emotional disorders, for instance. Patients with diabetes are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Higher HbA1c levels are associated with mood instability, depression, and fatigue.

The physical and mental strains patients carry are partly to blame for emotional risks. A long-term illness diagnosis requires major lifestyle shifts that can be difficult to make. After the diagnosis, monitoring chronic conditions can become an all-consuming job that induces even more stress, and this stress is fertile ground for depression to grow.

As depression grows in chronic disease patients, difficult symptoms can spiral out of control leading to further complications. For instance, fatigue from depression can make daily tasks like blood sugar testing more difficult for patients to monitor. And anxiety predisposes people towards unhealthy diets.

To complicate matters, overlapping symptoms make it difficult to distinguish diabetic symptoms from depressive symptoms.

Diabetic risk factors associated with emotional illness

Healthcare is also discovering that diabetes and emotional illness are bi-directional. Not only can diabetes possibly cause depression, but depression can potentially cause diabetes.

Interestingly, this bi-directional nature has been noted by scientists for several centuries. Ever since the 17th century, scientists have commented on the crossover between diabetes and mental illness.

While research hasn’t conclusively labeled depression as a major risk factor for diabetes, recent studies confirm that depression is linked to the development of type 2 diabetes. The more that healthcare confirms this bi-directional link, the more need there is to treat emotional illness as a preventative measure.

What this means for treatment options

The good news is that as one illness is treated the other illness improves as well. Treatment that addresses depression will help chronic disease patients continue on the path to a healthier lifestyle.

What this means, however, is that healthcare can’t treat just one symptom at a time. Patients with long-term illness need a whole person approach that addresses unseen symptoms along with visible symptoms.

Patients need a healthcare system that includes not only clinicians but also mental health experts. In addition, many chronic disease patients could benefit from mental health screening.

Here are three ways to incorporate emotional wellness into chronic disease treatment to deliver whole person care:

Provide an emotional support system

Patients with a strong support system are less likely to develop depressive symptoms. This is why healthcare needs to create communities of “expert” patients.

Such communities give patients a place to learn from others’ failures and successes. They can also brainstorm with other patients to improve their current situation. This type of fluid environment encourages patients to think outside the box and develop creative solutions to their problems.

A byproduct of this environment is a sense of hopefulness. As they see other patients successfully fighting disease, they start to believe they can, too.

Encourage patients in emotional wellness

Rarely in this fast-paced modern society do people examine the impact stress has on physical symptoms. Healthcare can help diabetic or pre-diabetic patients by encouraging them to slow down and monitor stress factors.

Health coaches can help monitor for emotional and mental illness symptoms and point patients to the right care. They can also educate patients on how to deal with factors that contribute to emotional illness as well as integrating mindfulness practices into their daily routine.

Offer treatment options for emotional distress

Sometimes preventative measures aren’t enough and patients need other alternatives such as working with a mental health clinician. Health coaches can help patients find the right caregiver for them.

In all of this, the goal is to fight chronic disease from a new angle. By helping patients increase their emotional wellness, healthcare has one more tool to slow or stop the diabetes epidemic.

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Topics: wellness, behavior change, emotional wellness, whole person care

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