NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Serious Medical Problems Can Change How You Feel About Yourself

When you're healthy and your life is going well, all other things being equal, it's easy to feel good about yourself.  But when you develop serious medical problems, it can change how you feel about yourself and about life in general.  When people develop serious medical problems, they often have a sudden sense of their physical and emotional vulnerabilities in ways they might not have experienced before.  

Serious Medical Problems Can Change the Way You Feel About Yourself

Reactions to Being Diagnosed with a Serious Medical Problem:  Shock, Fear, Anger, Sadness
If the medical problem is unexpected and potentially life threatening, people often experience shock at hearing the diagnosis.  Initially, a sense of disbelief can create a sense of emotional paralysis and confusion.  When the shock wears off, people often feel a combination of fear, anger and sadness about the "unfairness" of being diagnosed with the illness.  

Each person's experience is different.  These feelings don't occur in a linear way or, necessarily, in this order.  They can happen all at once or in any order.  However it happens, it usually takes people outside of their everyday experience and it can change their perception of themselves.

Being Treated as "a Sick Patient" 
A day before you received a diagnosis of a major medical illness, like cancer or heart problems, you probably thought of yourself as a husband, wife, mother, father, brother, sister, friend, an employee and all the other identifications that we all take on in life.

Suddenly, after you've been diagnosed with a major medical problem, your doctors identify you as a "sick patient," a "cancer patient," a "heart patient" or whatever diagnosis is applicable.  This isn't a criticism of the medical profession.  It's just the way it is in many medical settings, especially hospitals. When this happens, you can feel like you've been reduced to one identification-- your diagnosis.

You're More Than Your Medical Diagnosis
But each of us, no matter what our health issues might be, is more than any particular diagnosis.  We're whole people with relationships, histories and, hopefully, dreams for the future.  After a while, if you take on the identification of your diagnosis, it can change how you feel about yourself, reducing you to a list of symptoms.

Words Are Powerful
For the sake of maintaining a healthy emotional attitude, it is far better to be thought of as "a person with cancer" rather than "a cancer patient" (or whatever diagnosis applies).

You might think that this is just a matter of semantics, but it's not.  Words are powerful. When you're identified as "a cancer patient,"the implication is that this is your primary or, worse, your only identification.  But when you're identified as "a person with cancer," the implication is that there is a lot more to you than just your medical diagnosis--you're a whole person with a life that includes your medical diagnosis but also goes beyond your illness.  Rather than losing your sense of self to your illness, you maintain all the different aspects of yourself.

Research has shown that a positive attitude can have a significant effect on recovery.  So, maintaining a healthy sense of self can make the difference between having a good or a poor medical outcome.  So, how you think of yourself, including your sense of identity, is important.

Finding New Meaning in Life While Dealing With a Serious Medical Problem
I know there are exceptional individuals who are given serious medical diagnoses who find tremendous new meaning in life.  They appreciate every day, their relationships take on new meaning, and they might even find a renewed sense of spiritual connection.

While this is certainly impressive and something to aspire to when you've been diagnosed with a serious medical problem, a lot of people, through no fault of their own, find if very difficult to get to this place emotionally, and pointing to these exceptional people can make these other individuals feel blamed for not being able to reach such an enlightened state.

Your Internal and External Resources
If you're fortunate enough to be an individual who is resilient and who has a good emotional support system among family and friends, your chances for maintaining a healthy sense of self, despite the illness, are better.

As a resilient person, who has emotional support, you might have an awareness that, during the course of your life, you've overcome other challenges and you could see your medical problems as one more challenge to be overcome.

But not everyone is fortunate enough to be resilient and have a support system.  In addition, sometimes, prior emotional trauma can get triggered when you're diagnosed with a serious medical problem.  At that point, you're not only dealing with the current medical problem, but you're also dealing with the emotions that get triggered from prior trauma.

Under these circumstances, it's not unusual to feel powerless.  Feeling powerless, due to the current situation as well as feelings triggered from the past, can cause you to feel anxious or depressed.

Suddenly, your life looks a lot different from before your diagnosis.  People who have been diagnosed with a major medical problem, often talk in terms of "before the diagnosis" and "after the diagnosis" with the diagnosis serving a dividing line in their lives.

Getting Help in Therapy
Working with clients who have medical problems, I often find that a combination of clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing (SE) can be very effective to help them overcome the emotional challenges and maintain a healthy sense of self.

If you're struggling emotionally due to a medical diagnosis, you owe it to yourself to seek the help of a licensed psychotherapist who practices clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing.  

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist. 

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.