Should I See a Counselor Because of my Chronic Illness or Pain?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that discussed how you can get the most out of your counseling sessions. This week, I want to go in a slightly different direction and talk to individuals who are wondering if counseling would be helpful for them or not.

Perhaps you have a chronic illness or chronic pain condition that is having a huge impact on your life. You are completely overwhelmed and wonder if counseling might be the next step. But you’re also not sure if it would be worth the hassle. Would it actually help? And if so, what exactly would it help with?

Let me begin by saying that going to counseling would not mean you are admitting that your pain or illness is the result of a mental condition. It wouldn’t mean you are experiencing somatization or hypochondria. It wouldn’t mean your illness is all in your head, that your pain is due to past trauma, or that you are sick because you are depressed.

Many of us have been in situations where doctors made these insinuations. But let me assure you that there are counselors out there who can help and who won’t assume these things. You may have to look around for the right one, but they are out there.

The majority of people who go to counseling for their chronic illness or pain are simply experiencing emotional turmoil because of the stress of constant physical symptoms and limitations. For others, counseling is needed due to a mental health diagnosis that co-exists right next to the medical diagnosis.

So, back to our question. Would counseling be helpful for you, specifically, and your situation, specifically?

There are no cut and dry answers, but in general, here are some situations in which counseling might be of help.

  1. You don’t have a support system, or you are concerned you are draining your current support system and need to widen the circle of care.

If you are feeling alone in your pain or dismissed by family members and friends, a counselor could be a great place to go to talk and get everything off of your chest. And even if you do have a support system in place, sometimes it helps to have an outside and objective person to talk to, who can provide a new perspective on the situation and how you are handling things. Going to counseling can also take some of the burden off of your caretaker, which is important if you see that they are becoming burnt out.

  1. You are experiencing a great deal of anxiety or depression related to your diagnosis.

It is extremely common for depression and anxiety symptoms and/or disorders to co-exist along chronic pain and illness conditions. A counselor can help you develop tools and strategies to deal with these symptoms as you are learning to navigate life with constant pain. Together, you may be able to figure out what, specifically, is triggering the anxiety or depression and come up with a plan to help you move forward.

  1. You are experiencing relational issues related to your chronic pain or illness.

Counseling could be helpful in working through communication issues with your family, spouse, or friends. In situations such as this, it could be especially helpful to go to counseling with a family member to discuss the impact of your diagnosis on family functioning and how you can best help each other through each day.

  1. You have experienced something traumatic.

Perhaps you have experienced something traumatic in your past that has contributed to your chronic pain condition, such as a car accident, an assault, or any significant event that led to post-traumatic stress symptoms. Counseling could be a great place to work through managing your stress response. Learning to manage your stress response can even have an impact on the intensity of your physical symptoms.

It’s also possible you have experienced something traumatic that came about because of your chronic condition such as a surgery or procedure that went terribly wrong. Once again, counseling could help you work through the aftermath of this and your body’s response to this stressful event.  

  1. You are self-harming or experiencing thoughts of suicide.

This is a sure sign that a counselor is needed, even if you have great support. Keeping yourself safe needs to become a top priority. A counselor can help you come up with a plan to follow when you feel suicidal, including people to call, places to go, and activities to complete  in times of emotional distress.

  1. You just aren’t coping well with your pain and symptoms.

In general, a counselor can help you manage and cope with the stress of constant physical symptoms. Maybe you need to go through grief counseling to grieve the person you used to be. A counselor can walk through this grieving process with you.

A counselor can help you come up with strategies to get better sleep, reduce tension in your body, control your thinking patterns related to your pain, and brainstorm various strategies and accommodations to make your life easier.

In many cases counseling won’t help with the actual physical pain or symptoms, but it can help you manage the emotional stress or dealing with these symptoms. Counseling can help you learn how to live better in the midst of your pain, even if it didn’t go away.

How has counseling been helpful to you as someone who has a chronic condition?

What are some of your fears or questions surrounding starting counseling?

5 Comments

  1. Hi Esther. Thanks for this post. This is definitely the type of questions I asked myself when starting psychotherapy. Especially when you have an illness that still has a stigma for psychosomatization. I love Jenn Brea’s Ted Talk on this issue and I suggest everyone reads the her official Ted website where she puts a lot of resources that scientifically argue against all that Freudian cr$p (sorry for the strong word but it is still so pervasive today that millions of people still believe and are told their pain is just in their head.) So yeah, her notes and recommended reading list is a must (they explain very well the history of how doctors ended up dating such nonsense about chronic conditions. Knowledge is power! And if you’ve been scarredby one such therapists who trained in this method, those notes will vindicate you and hopefully convince you to try again but with a cognitive based therapist. You know, the ones who actually use functional MRI to prove pain and emotions are linked but does not mean you are just not thinking properly and that’s why you’re not getting better. I’m glad I found a cognitive based therapist, it was worth trying even if it took a few trials.
    Or try online therapy with skilled counselors. Also check if your insurance covers online, mine does but we had to call to know they actually did. And it’s been my only outlet many times, apart from my close ones. Like you say so well Esther, it’s good to extend the circle of care and it doesn’t feel like I’m burdening my close circle more.

  2. I’m grateful for your post. I’m not sure how or where to go about find a counselor that can help me here. I am completely overwhelmed and don’t know what to do.

  3. I found counseling to be more trouble than it was worth. I am not well. I struggle to accomplish everyday tasks. The time, effort and strain involved in getting there and losing precious moments was more harmful to me than the counseling was helpful.

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