Take time to find a therapist who understands your condition and its effects on your life.
It hits you unexpectedly. Maybe you’re playing with your child, reading ingredient labels at the grocery store, or planning a vacation, when all of a sudden you feel an overwhelming sense of guilt, shame, and anger about your inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
It’s hard not to be upset when IBD can affect what you make for dinner, whether you can participate in a planned adventure, and even how (or if) you spend time with your kid.
When thinking of managing chronic illnesses, it’s easy to overlook the toll they can take on mental health. Yet, study after study details the connection between physical and mental health. Therapy can be a crucial part of dealing with your condition.
“Having a ‘compassionate witness’ is very healing,” says Kate Chapman, who started therapy for a separate reason, but discovered how helpful it was to have a safe place to discuss her ulcerative colitis (UC).
“Having someone who is trained to help in the management of life is extra helpful,” Chapman adds. “Humans are social creatures. We need to share our stories and have someone ‘see’ us. Sharing stories about health issues —especially ones that are intimate, like ulcerative colitis — isn’t something easily done in open circles. Having a space to speak of what’s usually unspoken is like lancing a boil — it gets all the infection out.”
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness can be overwhelming. You may feel shocked, anxious, or in a bit of a daze. Therapists can help people process and work through the complicated feelings that often come with a diagnosis, says Dr. Frank J. Sileo, who has Crohn’s disease, is a licensed psychologist, and is the author of “When Your Child Has a Chronic Medical Illness: A Guide for the Parenting Journey.”
We need to share our stories and have someone ‘see’ us. Having a space to speak of what’s usually unspoken is like lancing a boil — it gets all the infection out.
— Kate Chapman
Therapists can also be instrumental in assisting patients to manage their illness after the initial shock. “Chronic illnesses often do not follow a straight or predicted course,” Sileo says.
“Therapists can help patients navigate the ups and downs that come with having an illness. In addition to providing expertise, a therapist can help you tolerate difficult feelings — your own and others’ — and help you deal with ambiguity. Therapists can also help you accept your own and others’ limitations and shortcomings, so you can move forward toward healing.”
Chronic illnesses, like IBD, are associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety, so it’s great to get connected with a therapist before you start to develop other potential secondary symptoms.
“The reason chronic illnesses can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety [is because of] the life disruptions caused by your illness,” says Elena Welsh, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people cope with chronic illness.
Welsh adds that people with chronic illness may also feel betrayed by their bodies or experience feelings of hopelessness, particularly when they think about what is yet to come with their illness.
In addition, Welsh says, “Because of the relationship between gut health and mental health, there is also research indicating that depression makes Crohn’s flares worse and that anxiety and depression increase IBD symptoms.”
Finding the right therapist can take some time. It can feel a bit like dating in that it’s hard to describe or know what you’re looking for until you find the right fit.
Sileo suggests looking for a therapist who:
Once you’ve selected a therapist, Welsh says, “It can be helpful to give [them] at least two sessions, because the first session often entails a lot of information gathering. So it is not necessarily representative of what a typical session will look like.”
It’s also important to do self-reflection before deciding whether a particular therapist is a good fit. Did you ask all the questions you wanted to ask? Were you being open with this person? If not, can you figure out why? A therapist is only as good as the material you give them to work with.
It’s unrealistic to expect to feel immediately better without doing some work on your end, Welsh adds. “Therapists do not have magic wands,” she says.
Chapman concurs. “Going to therapy doesn’t produce quick healing. It also isn’t the entire solution.”
She likes to combine therapy with contemplation, and takes a long walk after each therapy session to think about what they discussed, what helped her feel better, what surprised her, and what felt awful.
“Allowing therapy to be one prong of healing is very helpful. The price tag may seem high, but it’s some of the best money I’ve ever spent, and the dividends keep on paying, year after year.”
Medically reviewed on March 14, 2022
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