Autoimmune Disorders and Mental Health Support
Anyone suffering from an autoimmune disorder knows that mental health issues can play a big role in how you feel overall. Collectively, autoimmune disorders are one of the most prevalent diseases in the US. Research shows these disorders affect around 10% of the US population or an estimated 24 million people. While scientists and researchers know that environmental factors play an important role in the underlying etiology of these diseases it is still not proven if there is a causal link to stress, trauma, and mood disorders. Research and resulting evidence suggest that by decreasing unhealthy coping habits and adding mind-body interventions into a patient’s daily life, patients can improve their stress and in turn helps prevent immune dysfunction or lower symptoms of it.
When individuals have an autoimmune disorder, the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells. Common autoimmune disorders include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes. When a person feels stressed, cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. This causes heightened levels of breathing and an increased heart rate.
Increased emotional stresses, such as anxiety, depression or even the adrenaline rush can increase your adrenal gland’s secretion of adrenalines and cortisol. When you are in fight or your cortisol levels increase. While humans evolved to have a fight or flight response in order survive in nature, our modern lifestyle leads to situations that trigger this stress response however we have very limited ways to discharge the stress. The need to create endorphins to help relieve the cortisol is put by the wayside because we have sedentary lifestyles often coinciding with demanding jobs and full busy schedules.
Increased cortisol levels in your body will increase overall inflammation in the body which in turn can aggravate an autoimmune diagnosis such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Lupus, and other autoimmune diseases. Inflammation can make the body feel like it is under attack and in response, it creates more opportunity for antigen antibody complexes to form. In turn, antigen-antibody complexes also trigger even more inflammation. It is a viscous cycle that can lead to or deepen emotional responses such as depression, anxiety and even grief. Body pain can intensify and the feeling of being unwell increases.
Autoimmune Disorder Statistics:
- The National Institutes of Health estimates that 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases and the amount is likely much higher.
- Researchers have identified between 80-100 different autoimmune diseases.
- “Autoimmune diseases are tough to diagnose, and symptoms can often mimic other illnesses
- According to some research articles, it can take 4 years multiple doctors to get a current diagnosis.
- Pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.
- Chronic pain is the most common cause of long-term disability.
- 78% of individuals with autoimmune disorder are women.
Mental health disorders including grief play a big role in the development of a chronic illness. Childhood trauma, PTSD, abuse and other factors have been tied to autoimmune disorders. One of the paths to healing is to unwind the sympathetic nervous system trauma through some sort of stress management practice or therapy.
Psychotherapy in conjunction with medical interventions such as medication can help improve the quality of life for those suffering from autoimmune disorders. A client can be taught cognitive behavioral interventions and learn how to manage symptoms. Counseling with a skilled therapist allows a safe space for a client to discuss the impact of their illness on their life where their experience can be validated and normalized. The client can learn skills to advocate for themselves during medical treatments and evaluations. In addition, family therapy can be added by including the family members to help them understand the limitations of the person affected. This communication can bridge family members to a deeper, more empathetic understanding of the role that chronic illness can play within their loved one’s life.
Sometimes an autoimmune diagnosis can feel lonely and isolating. Through therapy, a person can learn how to create a self-care routine, develop self-compassion, and identify support systems to help them manage the ups and downs of their health and overall wellness.