Autoimmune conditions currently affect over 23 million Americans. The most familiar conditions that receive attention, such as rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, lupus, Lyme disease, and gastrointestinal/gut disorders (inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s), are usually marked by symptoms of pain or dysfunction in multiple regions of the body. What is often overlooked, however, is the finding that a large percentage of individuals with autoimmune conditions also experience elevated levels of depression, anxiety, stress, and brain fog. There are a lot of questions surrounding this issue, like:
Do autoimmune conditions cause biological changes that lead to depression and anxiety?
Does the stress of being sick lead people to feeling depressed and anxious?
Can being stressed, depressed, or anxious make autoimmune conditions worse?
Simply put, YES, to all of the questions above. The findings of medical and psychological research suggest that all of these things can be true.
Autoimmune conditions are associated with harmful amounts of chronic inflammation that damages neurotransmitter functioning (the chemicals responsible for depression, anxiety, etc. and conversely, also happiness, productivity, etc.) and interferes with certain parts of the brain working correctly (like the hippocampus, which governs memory functioning). So, yes, there does appear to be a biological connection between autoimmune conditions and compromised mental health.
Also, there are numerous reasons why stress levels are elevated in individuals with autoimmune conditions. Most people experience varying degrees of strain on relationships, finances, or occupational/educational functioning. Frequent flare-ups can cause feelings of helplessness, isolation, and a lack of control or predictability in life. More frequent interactions with “systems”, such as state disability and the medical community, often contributes to greater levels of stress and depression marked by disappointment, resentment, confusion, and anxiety.
Lastly, there is evidence that extreme and chronically elevated levels of stress aggravate autoimmune conditions. Symptoms become more severe, flare-ups last longer, pain spreads to more areas of the body in a faster period of time, and quality of life diminishes when stress contributes significantly to someone’s condition.
For these reasons, physicians may refer an individual with an autoimmune condition to a clinical health psychologist. The main role of a clinical health psychologist is to prevent and/or reverse the above outcomes. At NRS|Lifespan, we do this by objectively assessing how stress, depression, and anxiety are contributing to symptoms, educate patients on these relationships, and customize treatment to their condition and circumstances. If interested, call our office at 732-988-3441 to schedule a consultation appointment.
Lauren Gashlin, PsyD
Clinical Health Psychologist