Photo Credit: bugphai / istockphoto.com
COPD, Isolation, and Loneliness
Whether chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is new to your life or is something that you have been trying to manage for some time, you know the physical impact it can have on you. The shortness of breath, the low energy, the cough and the wheezing are all an exercise in frustration. They are only the beginning, though.
Most chronic medical conditions bring a list of mental health symptoms along for the ride, and COPD is no exception. COPD is commonly accompanied by changes in mental health, including isolation and feelings of loneliness.
If you have COPD, you likely fit into one of two categories. The first is filled with people who currently have feelings of isolation and loneliness. The second is filled with people who will have feelings of isolation and loneliness at some point in the future.
It’s important you to take serious, concerted action to resolve the issue, or to prevent it before it happens. No matter the case, the process is the same. To begin, work to gain a better understanding of COPD’s influence on your mental health, the source of your isolation and loneliness and find the best measures to improve your situation.
Mental Health and COPD
COPD, like other physical health issues, has a direct impact on mental health issues through one simple source: stress. When there is a change or something new that you are dealing with in your life, stress moves from the background to the front and center. Even positive life experiences can be stressful.
In the short-term, a bit of stress is no big deal. At times, stress can actually boost your mental and physical abilities by providing an extra jolt of attention, memory or strength. The problem comes when the stress become chronic. It begins to grow and fester into something progressively negative.
From there, a wide range of issues can present based largely on your personality, your environment and the symptoms associated with your physical health condition. If you have psoriasis, you may feel increasingly self-conscious, like everyone is looking at your skin. If you have AFib, you might feel like you are having a heart attack each time your symptoms flare. These false alarms will lead to anxiety and possible panic attacks.
For COPD, the issues with coughing, shortness of breath and lack of energy will keep you in the house more. To some extent, this will be a necessity, but it may also be an overreaction due to an exaggerated psychological response. You may think that you are too sick, too weak or too broken to continue life in the normal way.
This happens often to people experiencing a lifestyle change since they fear that pushing themselves too hard will end in failure. Playing it safe may lead to isolation and loneliness, though.
Is it Depression?
COPD is the trigger, and isolation and loneliness are the end result. What about the process in the middle? Depression could be the answer. It is one mental health disorder that is known to create these unwanted feelings, and depression fits well into the COPD framework.
When COPD creeps in, you will feel lower energy levels that often lead to less interest in doing activities you enjoy. The change in breathing comfort can cause problems sleeping. These shifts are paired with the normal grief and loss process that comes with being told that you are sick. Even if the diagnosis is not grim, you still move through feelings of sadness, confusion and anger associated with the news.
So, if you have sadness, anger, less energy, changing sleep, less motivation and interest in doing things, what do you get? It sounds like depression. Some times in life, depression comes from the inside, but this is an example of depression coming from the outside.
When depression is expressed, the lack of energy and motivation can cross over into isolation because you leave the house so infrequently. Perhaps, you begin to avoid people in your life because you irrationally feel like a failure or maybe are embarrassed by your condition. This isolation spawns loneliness.
An alternative explanation would be that your depression makes you think that the people in your life are not living up to your expectations of them. Your relationships seem more negative and less fulfilling, and so you feel lonely and isolate as a response.
Is it Anxiety?
Anxiety is another mental health condition that can be triggered by COPD and ends with isolation and loneliness but the mechanism is different. If you are more prone to anxiety, the physical sensations of COPD will create worry, panic and fear.
Anxiety is often associated with shortness of breath, dizziness and worry that terrible things will happen. COPD lightheadedness is common, so it could be a sign of either of these conditions. During periods of higher COPD symptoms like shortness of breath, you might feel an increase in anxiety or panic due to the symptom overlap.
COPD will make you think that your anxiety is worse. Anxiety will make you think that your COPD symptoms are worse. Over time, they will each become exaggerated leading to isolation and loneliness.
With isolation, your anxiety may have you convinced that leaving the house or surrounding yourself with people will put you at great risk. You will avoid any situation outside of your comfort zone. No contact with supports leads directly to loneliness.
Hopefully, you know by now that your mental health is so intertwined with your physical health that as one suffers, the other tends to follow.
Making It Better
COPD is a major medical concern. There is no denying or ignoring that fact. If you think that you are fine despite your diagnosis, please take another look. The problem grows if you do not acknowledge it. Early interventions lead to the best results. If you are still not converted, think about what COPD, depression and anxiety could do to the other people in your life. Seeing you change and deal with new issues can create confusion, frustration, sadness and anger in them as they go through a grief of their own. The selfish and selfless answer are the same: seek treatment.
The best way to improve or avoid depression and anxiety sparked by COPD is to find a trusted mental health professional in your area and initiate treatment. Your professional will give you a thorough evaluation to assess your needs. After this, he or she will teach you well-vetted interventions based on your abilities and level of symptoms.
For depression, therapists trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) will study your thought patterns to look for negative self-talk and cognitive distortions. If you make many overly negative statements to yourself during the day, your self-talk could be flawed.
Along the same lines, people with depression commonly have flawed ways of thinking called cognitive distortions. These distortions do not allow you to accurately perceive yourself or the world that surrounds you. Your therapist will point out these flaws while having you track the intensity and frequency. From there, you and your therapist will practice replacing the negative thoughts with more optimistic ones. This is just one example of the many interventions a therapist may provide you.
For anxiety, your therapist may choose to focus on understanding and differentiating between anxiety symptoms and COPD symptoms. Anxiety will force you to think that you are in danger during periods of high anxiety. This is not true, though. Anxiety is uncomfortable, yes, but not dangerous. Working to better identify the differences in the symptoms will give you the information needed to react in the appropriate way.
Certainly, no treatment for anxiety would be complete without your therapist teaching you one or several relaxation techniques like deep breathing. Deep breathing may seem like a poor fit for someone with COPD, it can actually help improve your symptom awareness.
COPD will change your life if you let it. Whether you are being reactive or preventative, doing something about your condition and its impact on mental health is imperative. Now that you know what can happen and why it happens, you can do something about it. Doing nothing is easy, but never best.