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Silent Suffering: Anxiety and Chronic Disease

What happens when you have an emotionally and physically painful disease that no one else can see; when you are sick on the inside but have little physical proof of your struggle? Millions of Americans suffer from “invisible diseases” – sicknesses that have a negative, painful impact on the sufferer but demonstrate no “proof” to the external world. Chronic disease and anxiety disorders are both debilitating struggles that many Americans face on a daily basis. The common thread between the two issues is their silent nature. Many chronic diseases do not have any visible, outward manifestations. A person who has recently contracted the flu coughs, sneezes, vomits, and runs a fever; however, a person with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome feels exhausted internally but the outward world cannot visualize the symptoms. This is similar to anxiety sufferers who often feel unwarranted and paralyzing fear inwardly but outwardly exhibit little to no visible, physical indications of distress. Silent illnesses are difficult to manage because non-suffers struggle to understand the complications of these diseases. Family members and friends may struggle to support a sufferer due to the lack to the lack of visible symptoms and intangible needs. Chronic disease and anxiety often find themselves in a feedback loop; chronic disease increases susceptibility to anxiety, so many people who have been diagnosed with a chronic condition also suffer from anxiety disorders thus exponentially magnifying their personal battle. What is Anxiety? The National Institute of Mental Health provides a detailed outline of the illness. Throughout life, everyone experiences anxiety. This is the body’s natural reaction to stress – the fight or flight reaction – when a situation appears threatening. However, in some individuals this reaction becomes extreme and uncontrollable and develops into a disorder. Anxiety disorders typically are diagnosed if a sufferer has undergone symptoms for six months and experiences interference with day to day living. A wide range of anxiety disorders exist: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Phobias, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Each type has unique symptoms and occurrences, but the common thread is uncontrollable feelings of irrational fear and dread. Anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million Americans yearly and are more common in women than men. This type of mental disorder is among the most common experienced by citizens in the U.S. Anxiety disorders commonly co-occur with other mental and physical illnesses. Co-Occurring Conditions According to researchers David M. Clarke and Kay C. published in theMedical Journal of Australia, “anxiety is more common in people with heart disease, stroke and cancer than in the general population.” This information indicates that specific chronic conditions increase susceptibility to anxiety struggles and disorders. The Queensland Government Health Officer Report notes these instances as ‘co-morbid conditions’ or situations where chronic disease and psychological distress interact. Additionally, theHarvard Women’s Health Watch has found that people with Chronic Respiratory Disorders have a higher likelihood of anxiety related disorders. Further,The American Diabetes Association indicates that a person with diabetes is 20 percent more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than a person without diabetes. All of these studies indicate the interlaced nature and connectivity that exists between chronic disease and anxiety disorders. Chronic disease increases the susceptibility to anxiety disorders. Importance of Treatment M. Robin DiMatteo, PhD; Heidi S. Lepper, PhD; Thomas W. Croghan, MD found that anxiety is a cause for non-compliance with medical treatment. Anxiety disorders cause individuals to be less likely to cooperate with treatments such as regularly taking medicines, self-care, etc.  Depression also impacts compliance with care, compared with non-depressed patients, depressed patients are three times as likely to be non-compliant with medical recommendations. If an individual feels they are undergoing symptoms of an anxiety disorder, it is important to seek help immediately, especially if the person already suffers from a chronic condition. The symptoms of anxiety disorders and other illnesses are easily confused and only a doctor can appropriately diagnose a condition. While an anxiety disorder in coordination with a chronic illness seems like a very difficult journey, the help of a psychiatrist and therapist can drastically alleviate anxiety related symptoms and help patients focus on managing their chronic condition. Resources Surround yourself with positive support. No matter how bleak the day; there is hope. Many Americans suffer from both chronic conditions and anxiety disorders and a plethora of resources exist to help put individuals on the track to a thriving, happy life with the proper management of conditions. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers information about finding help. The site offers resources for low cost treatment, therapist location, medication information, alternative treatments, and clinical trials. Your primary care doctor can also help you locate resources that will coordinate with your chronic care treatment. Speak with your primary care doctor first to explain your symptoms and formulate a plan of action. The first step to recovery is seeking proper help. Meagan Bates is a healthcare communications professional living in Washington, D.C. She focuses on the need for preventative healthcare to reach improvement for patients and the healthcare system as a whole. She holds a M.A. from Clemson University with a Health Communication Certification.  
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