From Diagnosis to Dismay: How Physical Health Affects Mental Health

It’s all too familiar…getting the call that a loved one has received a medical diagnosis. We answer in shock, we react out of concern and we begin to wonder what will happen next. The call is becoming more familiar, especially as Cancer has become so prevalent today. We have each been affected in some manner, whether personally, through family, friends, or extended acquaintances.  If we as family and friends become so full of emotion, imagine what the patient feels. They are often overcome with fear, doubt and questions.

It is this set of emotions, though embedded with some sense of hope, that has caused many women to decline more quickly. We often see vibrant women living vibrant lives, experiencing subtle symptoms of a diagnosis.  However, when they receive an official diagnosis from a doctor, their physical appearance and overall health changes dramatically.

Some family and friends refer to this as mind over matter, after all, it makes sense. However, as patients undergo treatment and increase hospital stays, they could experience the hospitalization phenomena, where there is a deterioration in the general health condition. The experience is a real test of the mind. There is a transition that affects cognitions/thoughts when one receives a medical diagnosis which implies “terminally ill”.

As women begin to battle breast cancer, polycystic ovaries, lupus, diabetes and other health related issues they may also begin to battle with mental health concerns. Often times, depression and anxiety increase significantly based on uncertainty of physical health conditions. Yet, one is more likely to receive consistent medical treatment without receiving mental health treatment. Therapists have sought to destigmatize mental health services, yet it continues to be difficult for people to follow through.

Medical family therapy is a specified service that seeks to address such a blended issue. It includes an increased focus on providing mental health support to patients and families who are dealing with medical issues. This integrated system of care recognizes the importance of treating mental health needs in collaboration with physical health. Additionally, family therapists are trained with a systemic perspective that seeks to include family members in sessions as well. As therapist, we know that when a family member is diagnosed medically, family members must live altered lives as well.  There are changes to daily life, accommodations in the home and often taking just as much time away from the workplace as the patient. If you or a loved one has received a physical diagnosis, a mental health assessment and therapy services could be beneficial and increase overall resiliency.

Whether receiving therapeutic treatment or not, here are three crucial tips to supporting a loved one’s mental health to reduce dismay.

  • Understand the grieving process. Receiving a medical diagnosis causes a range of emotions that often resemble a grieving process. This could include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is important to be available and in the moment with loved ones as they experience each phase. Encourage them to talk and or journal feelings to externalize thoughts. Allow loved ones to express themselves and spend time validating their feelings. Modest phrases such as “I understand” and “You have a right to feel this way” could be advantageous. This is where your best listening skills are imperative!
  • Remain hope focused. During conversations and interactions with your loved one, it is important to utilize hope focused statements. Use a strength based approach by focusing on what is going well in other areas of life in addition to any progress with the condition. This allows the loved one to see that change is indeed possible. Help them to see how the future still exists by making future plans. Encouragement and motivation will provide positive endorphins for the brain as they experience uncertainty. Remaining hope focused will also serve as a coping technique and alter negative thoughts.

  • Asking what they need. How many times have you appreciated nice gestures from others however they didn’t quite hit the mark? Somehow, you still lacked what you really needed. It is imperative to explicitly ask what your loved one needs. Allow them time and space to respond. Follow up with examples of tangible needs as well as emotional needs if necessary. Seek to follow through on needs first, before making gestures based on personal experiences.

Our mothers, daughter, aunts, wives, and cousins need support during these tough times. Although medical diagnosis could lead to increased depressive symptoms and overall anxiety, we can build support systems and refer to mental health programs that increase success. Women ARE strong, women ARE resilient, and we WILL NOT allow a diagnosis to cause dismay.


About our Author:

LaTanya Moore, Ph.D., LMFT

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