Home Mental Health & Well-Being Understanding the Mental Toll of Chronic Illness on Patients and Families

Understanding the Mental Toll of Chronic Illness on Patients and Families

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Chronic illness is an enormous source of stress, not only on the person who has received the diagnosis but also on the people who care about them. Doctors and nurses will help manage the disease and the symptoms it causes. 

Unfortunately, there often isn’t very much support when it comes to managing the resulting stress and anxiety. Stress is harmful to your body and can make it harder to manage illness.

The impacts of ongoing stress

Ongoing stress is strongly linked to a wide range of negative health outcomes. Not only does it feel bad to be stressed out but it can exacerbate the symptoms of a chronic illness, and even increase the likelihood that you will develop new symptoms. 

Stress can cause inflammation, cardiovascular distress, headaches, insomnia, and a wide range of other symptoms that worsen health. 

This is as true for family members as it is for patients. If you are taking care of a loved one who is suffering from chronic illness, it is important to take care of your own health as well as theirs. 

Acknowledge your stress

One of the most important early steps in stress management is acknowledging that you feel bad in the first place. This is harder to do than many people initially assume. Stress tends to set in gradually. You may experience the symptoms even during moments when you aren’t particularly worried or upset about anything.

Maybe your chest is a little tight. Maybe your stomach feels acidic and your breathing is short and irregular. You don’t feel good but, you also can’t lay your experiences at the feet of chronic illness. 

Accept, of course, that you can. Just admitting to yourself that you don’t feel good can be a very freeing experience. From there, it becomes much easier to seek lifestyle modifications and other forms of support that may be of help.

Hacking your stress response

Once you understand the brain chemistry behind stress, a lot of other things begin to make sense. The primary chemical responsible for a stress response is called cortisol. It is there for a good reason. When you are near danger, your body needs to enter what people commonly refer to as a “flight or fight”, response. 

In other words, you need to be able to recognise danger and prioritise responding to it appropriately. Cortisol is what makes that happen. 

While it continues to be valuable, it’s also a largely antiquated emotional response. Most people don’t regularly encounter physical danger. And while the chronically ill are dealing with a high-risk situation, it isn’t anything they can fight or flight their way out of. 

Providing your brain with the opportunity to calm and soothe itself is often one of the best things you can do during challenging times. 

Below, we take a look at some of the conditions that can be utilised to naturally reduce stress, even in very trying situations. 

Spend time outside

Spending time outside can create a release of serotonin and dopamine in your brain. Both chemicals are responsible for feelings of contentment and joy. They can actively reduce cortisol levels, helping you to emotionally even out even during very difficult situations. 

Often, outdoor experiences involve physical activity which provides further health benefits. Getting your heart rate up also produces dopamine, resulting in what some people call a “runner’s high.” 

Pet an animal

Petting your dog or cat will release a serotonin response in you and the animal. It’s a symbiotic relationship that accounts for why people have cherished their pets for hundreds of years. It’s also why your dog tends to hover near your side at all times. 

Emotional support animals are often leveraged in patients dealing with chronic illness for exactly that reason. 

Mindfulness helps

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the here and now. While the present can feel like an ocean of endless suffering when you are dealing with chronic illness, you may be surprised to find that the actual present –  the things that are happening this very second – aren’t so bad. 

Stress is often caused by a past or future orientation. Basically a fancy way of saying that you are worrying about something that already happened, or will happen in the future. 

Mindfulness activities can be as simple as meditation or yoga. It can also be woven into other activities, like hikes, to maximise your benefits. 

Stress management habits build up

It’s important to think of stress management not just as an occasional activity but something you prioritise as a lifestyle choice. You won’t lose weight eating onion rings every day but finish your week off with a salad instead. 

To see real results, you need to make changes to your everyday behaviour. This can feel very challenging in the midst of a bad diagnosis but it’s in these challenging times that making good choices is most important. 

Do something good for yourself every day and you will find that your stress levels slowly decline and become easier to handle. 


While managing stress isn’t enough to turn a bad diagnosis around, it can make the experience much more tolerable for everyone involved. So much of the suffering caused by illness happens not from the disease itself but from how it modifies the afflicted person’s worldview. 

If you or a loved one are dealing with chronic illness the tips described above will make your lives more comfortable. It can be hard to prioritize mental health when everything feels out of control. Your life may be changing forever. Being told to pet a dog can feel almost insulting in that context. 

That’s a reasonable response, but the fact is that science supports the importance of stress management. Taking care of yourself can have significant long-term benefits that shouldn’t be ignored.

David Radar, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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