The Hidden Impact of Autoimmune Disease on Mental Health

by | Apr 9, 2024 | Mental Health, Psychology | 0 comments

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) suggests that autoimmune diseases affect approximately 5% of the population in Australia and New Zealand, and are therefore fast becoming one of the most prevalent chronic health problems in the country. Autoimmune diseases can be defined as a range of more than 80 related disorders that vary from common to rare. An autoimmune disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells, tissues, and organs, causing inflammation and damage. Examples include diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.

In recent years, research has shed light on the intricate connection between autoimmune conditions and mental health. While autoimmune disorders primarily target the body’s immune system, their impact often extends beyond physical symptoms, influencing mental well-being in profound ways. Understanding this relationship is crucial for comprehensive healthcare and support for individuals grappling with these conditions.

Personally, the significant impact of autoimmune conditions on mental well-being has been made very clear in recent months, working with clients impacted daily by the complexities of living with chronic autoimmune disease.

Understanding the Mind-Body connection

Autoimmune conditions occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Researchers are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms underlying the relationship between autoimmune disorders and mental health. For example, elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (such as interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha), have been implicated in both physical inflammation and psychiatric symptoms. Additionally, dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a key stress response system, may contribute to mood disorders in individuals with autoimmune conditions.

The chronic inflammation that is caused leads to physical discomfort and also triggers a cascade of responses in the brain, nervous system and endocrine system, that affects mood, cognition and behaviour.

Living with an autoimmune condition can take a significant toll on mental health. The pain, extreme fatigue, and potential disabilities associated with these conditions can lead to feelings of frustration, helplessness, hopelessness and depression. It can be incredibly difficult to cope with unpredictable and often chronic symptoms and the challenges of managing daily life. In addition, anxiety and stress levels as a result of symptom management end up further exacerbating inflammation and health concerns!

Psychological factors play a crucial role in shaping the mental health outcomes of autoimmune conditions. Effective coping mechanisms, social support, and resilience can mitigate the impact of symptoms on psychological well-being. Conversely, stigma, isolation, and feelings of being misunderstood by those around you can easily exacerbate mental health challenges. This mind-body interconnection highlights the importance of holistic care approaches.

Creating an integrated Care Team for autoimmune sufferers

Recognizing the complex interplay between the medical and psychological needs of someone with an autoimmune condition is the first step toward providing effective care and support. Integrated healthcare approaches that address both physical and psychological aspects of these conditions are essential. This may involve collaboration between specialists (such as rheumatologists or endocrinologists), dieticians, and mental health professionals to tailor treatment plans that address the unique needs of each individual.

In addition, family members play a crucial role in supporting individuals living with autoimmune conditions. Educating themselves about the condition and its impact on mental health can foster empathy and understanding. Offering practical assistance with daily tasks or attending medical appointments can alleviate some of the burdens faced by their loved ones. Additionally, providing emotional support, lending a listening ear, and validating their experiences can make a significant difference to the individual’s mental well-being. Encouraging open communication, fostering a supportive environment, and being patient during flare-ups or periods of worsened symptoms can help strengthen relationships and enhance overall quality of life.

Lastly, individuals should also be empowered and encouraged to take an active role in managing their physical and mental health. Adopting self-care practices such as regular exercise and mindfulness techniques can help alleviate symptoms.

Below are a few tips on how to help yourself manage the impacts of an autoimmune condition:

Practising self-management

  1. Seek professional support from healthcare professionals specializing in chronic illness and mental health. Therapy can be a useful space to better understand and manage the impact of stress on the body and mind.
  2. Educate yourself about your autoimmune condition and available resources for support and treatment.
  3. Practice stress management techniques like mindfulness, deep breathing, or yoga.
  4. Maintain a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and adequate sleep.
  5. Build a support network through support groups, online forums, or social networks.
  6. Set realistic goals and expectations, taking into consideration your physical limitations.
  7. Practice self-compassion and self-care.
  8. Communicate openly with healthcare providers and loved ones about your needs and limitations.
  9. Monitor your mental health and seek help if and when needed.
  10. Stay flexible and adaptable in managing both physical and mental health challenges.

Navigating the journey of chronic illness together

Living with an autoimmune condition can be a challenging journey, marked by both physical and emotional hurdles. By understanding the complex relationship between your medical condition and mental health, you can better communicate your needs for support in navigating this journey with resilience and hope.

Through integrated care, relational support, and self-empowerment, we can work towards improving the quality of life for all those affected by autoimmune disorders. Remember to reach out to the psychologists at the Centre for Effective Living, should you or a loved one need support managing a chronic illness or autoimmune disease.