February 8, 2024

Long term health conditions and how we can help

What are long term health conditions?

A long term or chronic physical health condition is a health problem that requires ongoing management over a period of months, years, or longer. A long term physical health condition is usually one for which a cure is not readily available, but can be managed with medical intervention. In some instances, it may be a condition whereby the course of treatment is lengthy or unclear.

Conditions which fall under long term or chronic health conditions include, but are not limited to:

  • Chronic Pain
  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy and other neurological conditions
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • HIV
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Joint disorders or physical disability

Chronic physical health difficulties are associated with high levels of uncertainty. People frequently find they need to change their behaviour, or perhaps even lifestyle, in order to properly manage their condition. It can also mean enduring repeated treatments which can be physically and mentally demanding. These are some of the factors that make adjustment to long term medical illness challenging.

Many people with long term physical health conditions also suffer mental health difficulties. The most commonly experienced include: depression, anxiety, and dementia in the case of older people. This comorbidity can further impact quality of life as living with both physical and mental ill health can be stressful and debilitating. The latest research shows our physical and mental health are inextricably linked. Therefore, it can be harder to manage a chronic physical health condition alongside coping with depression or anxiety.

Actions that can help

  1. Try to maintain a healthy routine. Making good choices when it comes to diet and exercise can impact how you experience the world and your mental wellbeing. It can also have positive effects on your physical health.
  2. Stay involved with your care plan. A collaborative process between you and your physicians can support your understanding of your condition, ensure any treatments prescribed consider your needs, and may enable you to feel more in control.
  3. If this is a new physical health condition, try to name this life change. By acknowledging things are changing and validating how you are feeling, it may help you move further towards acceptance.
  4. Connect with others. Positive relationships can help you to feel valued and provide additional support when necessary.
  5. Seek support if you need to. Everyone is different and will adjust to the experience of a long term health condition in their own way. If you are finding it hard to adjust, it may be helpful to reach out to someone to talk to. This could be a friend, family member or a healthcare professional. Additional support will help you to better manage your condition.

Symptoms

Specific symptoms can vary enormously depending on the type of long term physical health condition. However, it is not uncommon for people to share increased experiences of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. For more information about mental health difficulties click here.

Treatment

Long term physical illnesses are frequently associated with similar mental health difficulties for which psychological therapy has been proven effective (e.g. difficulties managing mood and extreme fatigue). Psychological therapy therefore can be useful in helping to manage a long term health condition alongside routine treatment prescribed by your physician. Psychological interventions can include:

Self-help, psychoeducation, or guided self-help which can help to work through some common difficulties experienced by those who are struggling with their mental health. This approach can be adapted to include specific examples relating to those with long term physical health conditions.

Group therapy can also help manage stress, anxiety, and low mood in the context of a health condition. It often allows space for reflection on the impact of a physical condition, the chance to hear others experiences which can provide reassurance and normalisation, the opportunity to gain support from peers, and learn skills to cope with the effects of a long term condition.

Lastly, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be used to help manage distress associated with health conditions, such as difficulties with fatigue and mood. It aims to help manage symptoms by changing how people think about their illness and act as a consequence of it.

How to get help

In order to access treatment or support for long term physical health difficulties, we would recommend you start by talking to your GP as they will be able to refer you to a specialist for further assessment. It can be difficult to ensure your physical and mental health management is integrated, and on occasion it may take persistence with your physician. If you are not seeing any improvements with your current management plan, it is important to highlight this to a healthcare professional. By starting a conversation with a friend, family member or healthcare professional, you will be taking the first step towards recovery and improving your wellbeing.

Long term health conditions - Five facts

  1. About 15 million people in England have a long term physical health condition.
  2. The most common of these conditions are asthma, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure and epilepsy.
  3. Most (but not all) long term conditions are more likely to affect the elderly than the young.
  4. Of those who report living with a long term physical condition, 24% have two long term conditions and 20% live with three or more long term conditions.
  5. Psychological therapy can help develop new techniques to manage experiences of low mood and anxiety that may be associated with a long term physical health difficulty.

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