Why is counseling needed for recovery from a disease?
Today the importance of counseling for disease is more widely recognized and recommended than ever before. Many hospitals and rehabilitation centers offer counseling programs for people who are battling cancer, struggling with addiction or are facing other serious health problems. This raises the question of why would a person with cancer or addiction benefit from a service that works with a person’s mental health.
It has been established that most diseases have some sort of psychological component. In many cases, this involves stress. Let’s take as two examples, two very distinct illnesses, such as cancer and addiction.
Example One: Counseling for Addiction
In the case of addiction, it seems easier to establish the need for counseling. The person who has a substance abuse problem usually has certain alteration in the brain, but also specific flawed ways of thinking, deeper problems that may be masked by the addiction, other mental health disorders and other issues might also be present that might benefit from counseling. Let’s take a closer look.
A addict who is active in their disease may frequently engage in flawed ways of thinking. They may deny the problem or try to minimize, justify it or rationalize it. The person might feel angry or sad and not know how to handle these emotions. There commonly are also other factors that contribute such addiction in the family or a trauma history. An experienced and well-trained counselor can help the individual explore the ideas that have led to addiction and may be supporting it, changing negative thinking for a more positive thinking process and learning to adopt new behaviors that support recovery. Counseling can also give the individual tools for the healthy expression of emotions and healthy relationships with others.
Often, addiction appears together with other issues in the person’s life. These issues might involve loneliness, family troubles, low self-esteem or as mentioned earlier, a history of trauma and abuse. Counseling can address these issues, helping the person overcome these situations without using substances as a way of coping.
Addiction often co-occurs with other disorders. Frequently, these disorders are ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and many others. Counseling can work with the symptoms of the other disorder, improving the person’s overall state and condition, which can also benefit the treatment for addiction. In general, it is now generally an accepted best practice that co-occurring disorders need to be treated in tandem, together, to achieve a significant and lasting improvement in the person’s life.
For example, a person with bipolar disorder might consume alcohol during their manic episodes, as one of the characteristics of this state is the increase of euphoria and engagement in pleasurable activities, but that may have dangerous consequences. The same person may then again drink during their depressive episodes, where they may use alcohol, mis-guidedly so, as a pick-me-up or simply to mask or hide from their feelings. If the person does not receive treatment for the bipolar disorder, for instance, receiving mood stabilizers, it’s likely that it will be difficult for them to comply with the treatment for substance abuse due to the shifting mood and the specific symptoms of each episode. However, a joint treatment of the comorbid conditions can more effectively benefit the person.
In general, few people deny that addiction requires counseling, not just medical help. In the case of cancer and other diseases which are viewed as being purely “medical”, there may be more controversy.
Now let’s take a look at why counseling can help a person with a disease such as cancer.
Example Two: Counseling for Cancer / Serious Medical
The first thing that counseling can offer is dealing with the grief of having such an illness and going through a process that culminates in acceptance. Many diseases confront the person with their own impermanence or mortality and with many regrets, pain and fear. Counseling can help the person live through this process, avoiding additional damage and providing a safe environment.
A second aspect of counseling for recovery is that stress and negative emotions play a big role in the progress of disease. While there is no clear link between stress and cancer, it does affect the person’s health indirectly. Constant stress wears down the body, reduces the effectiveness of the immune system and has many other negative effects that could be dangerous to the health of the individual. Stress often is not connected just to the situations a person lives through, but also to their interpretation of this situation, their beliefs and ideas.
For example, let’s consider a cancer survivor who has been a workaholic throughout most of their life. This might be a person who places a high value on working “till you drop” and that doesn’t know how to relax. This is an attitude that might bring them problems if they find it hard to adjust it to their new life circumstances. Counseling can help them develop a new attitude that they are more comfortable with and that is not harmful to their health, reducing stress. It can also help the person use strategies for relaxing and for establishing their new workload. This may be especially important during periods of chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment.
Counseling for disease can help with the adjustment process in general, helping the person accept the changes that have occurred in their life, solidify their commitment to resilience, address their emotions and talk about the many things they may not be comfortable sharing with their family members or friends. The counseling process can help the patient and their loved ones not only to move forward, but also to make the most of the experience.
Counseling for disease can be said to engage the higher executive functions. A disease can bring forward and activate some of the more deep and unconscious parts of our minds, such as our limbic system and the body’s fight-or-flight response. The person might feel overwhelmed with fear, so a process such as counseling that favors integration and engages higher functions related to the prefrontal cortex, for instance, can help the person ground themselves in reality and overcome their difficult emotional state to give them hope for the future.
There are many good counselors out there. You will find the one who is right for you. Whomever you choose, take the time to be sure they are experienced, seasoned, appropriately trained/licensed, communicate clearly, honestly and with compassion.
Thank you for reading. Our heart and prayers are with you on your path wherever it takes you.
“Survival Is Science, Living Is Art”
Counseling for Disease / Live Better Live Now / Houston, Texas