Anxiety and Depression with Chronic Illness

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I’m excited about this guest post to introduce an important discussion. Various types of anxiety and depression are more common in those who live with chronic illness & chronic pain. I hope this post will help us to think about when symptoms are serious enough to need help.

Hello brave RA Warriors!  My name is Karaleigh. I am a mental health professional currently working on my dissertation to complete my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.  I also am a fellow warrior and have been diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis for many years.

Chronic illness can lead to anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression with chronic illness postDo you remember the first time you were told you have an immune illness? Was there…

  • relief you felt that you were not crazy and your symptoms were real?
  • fear of the unknown?
  • sadness that your life will be altered?

These feelings are very common. Time must be given to mourn the “old me” before this illness snuck into your life. Many of us had hopes, dreams and goals that were shattered when we were diagnosed. Our lives were completely altered, we can no longer play the sports we once did, sleep so few hours or work 60+ hour weeks. We fear that we may not be able to care for ourselves or family or provide for them. We may fear that nobody will love us, our friends and family will abandon us, or we will become overwhelmed and alone. These changes and fears can lead to anxiety or depression.


Let’s look at anxiety. Among the different types of anxiety are panic disorders (anxiety that causes panic attacks), phobias, and generalized anxiety.

Women are three times more likely to be diagnosed with panic disorder than men. It can be hard to distinguish between a panic attack, heart attack, sudden anxiety, asthma attack or other medical condition, so it is important to get treatment or seek medical help when concerned.

Did you know that it is common for people to experience a panic attack or anxiety attack at least once in their life?  It is diagnosed as a mental health condition if it is persistent and affects your daily life.  

Have you ever suffered from a panic attack?  People who have often describe it as if a person took a gun to their head and threatened to pull the trigger.  They suddenly fear that they are about to die. Generalized anxiety is a more common form of anxiety and is suggested to have a genetic component. Like other anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety is more common in women than men, but does happen in both males and females.

Social Phobia is very common in individuals with chronic health conditions.  Many explain that they feel embarrassed about their physical appearance, inability to dance, consume alcohol, or do other activities that are “normal” during social experiences.  They experience anxiety and fatigue and do not enjoy social situations as much.

Symptoms of panic attack:

  • palpitations (rapid heartbeat, racing heart or pounding heart)
  • sweating, trembling, or shaking
  • feeling that you are being smothered or cannot breathe or that you are choking
  • chest pain/discomfort
  • nausea, stomach pain or upset stomach
  • dizziness, lightheaded or feeling as if you may faint
  • feeling as if you are not in reality, you are in a dream or detached from your own body
  • fear of dying, losing control, losing your mind or going crazy
  • numbness and tingling
  • hot or cold flashes

Generalized anxiety symptoms:

  • excessive anxiety or worry or irritability
  • anxiety or worry that is difficult to control
  • restlessness or feeling on edge
  • being easily fatigued
  • difficulty concentrating
  • muscle tension
  • difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or unsatisfying sleep
  • anxiety that is not specific to anything in particular

Social phobia symptoms:

  •  persistent fear of social or performance situations.
  • fear that you will do, say or act in a way that would be humiliating or embarrassing
  • exposure to social situations provokes anxiety
  • fear that is excessive or unreasonable
  • fear leads you to avoid social or performances or they are continued with intense anxiety or distress
  • fear leads to interference in your life, normal routine, relationships or functioning


Those with chronic health conditions also frequently suffer from depression.  Most common is major depressive disorder, either single episode or a recurrent type. Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, clinical depression or major depression is not something you can snap out of, or brush off.  Like anxiety, it affects your life significantly. Here are some things to watch for.

Symptoms of depression

  • feeling continually sad
  • irritability and/or frustration even over little things
  • loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable or decreased sex drive
  • insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • change in appetite, increased eating/food cravings, decreased eating/food cravings, weight gain or weight loss.
  • agitations/restlessness, wringing your hands, pacing, knuckle cracking, cannot sit still
  • slowed speaking, thinking or body movements
  • indecisiveness
  • distractibility or decreased ability to concentrate
  • fatigue, decreased energy, tiredness
  • frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide, worthlessness, or guilt
  • fixation on past failures or self blame when things go wrong
  • trouble concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things
  • crying spells for no apparent reason
  • unexplained physical problems

Important: As with all symptoms listed here, symptoms of depression or anxiety that are explained by a health condition may not indicate that you suffer from depression or anxiety.  For example if you have trouble concentrating or fatigue that is due to RA, then it is not necessarily a symptom of depression.  Additionally some medications may create symptoms that mimic depression or anxiety.  Check with your pharmacist for a list of side effects of the medications you take.  ALWAYS contact your doctor before starting or stopping any medications, vitamins or herbs to avoid potentially harmful interactions.

Check out part 2 of this series on anxiety and depression with chronic illness, where Karaleigh discusses seeking help.

Recommended reading:

NOTE: Your comments are an important resource for future readers of this post in the months to come. Please find the comment link below each post.

Click here to read all the comments or add yours!

Kelly Young. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 16th, 2010 at 6:00 am and is filed under Living with RA / Managing RA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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