Maintaining mental health while managing pain: A hemophilia story
It is easy to think of hemophilia as strictly a physical condition. On the surface, it involves bleeds, affects joints and often requires injections.
While there is no doubt about the physical side of hemophilia – see for instance this blog post (link to “Bleeds”) – in this blog post we are going to look at another, not-so-visible side of hemophilia: the pain it causes, and how that might cause mental health problems such as depression, anger and anxiety.
The many faces of hemophilia-related pain.
This is general disease awareness and should not be understood as medical advice. If you experience symptoms of COVID-19 or have questions, doubts or concerns, you should contact your doctor. Always follow the advice of local authorities.
Emotional or mental health is important, perhaps as important as physical health. When mental health is impaired, thoughts, feelings and behaviours can themselves turn into life problems rather than providing a window through which one may look and make sense of life.
It is hard to manage physical symptoms, but even harder doing so while hardly having enough energy.
Fortunately, the hemophilia community has already done much to address and propose solutions for mental health issues. Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the whole situation before finding out how mental health can be promoted for the individual.
1. Depression and pain
Pain is one of the most common symptoms for people with hemophilia (PwH). In one study, 89% of PwH said that pain recently interfered with their lives. For 50%, the pain is constant.
Nearly as many PwH, namely 47%, report psychological or psychiatric conditions.
But does pain cause psychological problems? In the case of depression, a common psychological condition for PwH, its relationship with pain has been well studied. According to one estimate, 1 out of 2-3 people who suffer from chronic pain also have a major depressive disorder.
While simply having a chronic disease can put a person at greater risk of depression, for some PwH the mood impact comes suddenly.
One young man with hemophilia remembers clearly the shock of finding out what exactly had to be done about his loss of mobility and muscle mass:
As in Jhonatan’s case, the best healthcare professionals help PwH address both physical and mental health challenges. However, by learning a few coping mechanisms, PwH need not rely on professionals to help them through things like sadness. Caring for one's own mental health is a skill that can be acquired and self-administered.
2. Anger and pain
For many PwH, the path to mental healing goes via acceptance and understanding.
It helps recognising that there are valid and understandable reasons for mental vulnerability and mental health problems. Rule number 1: Being prone to unpleasant and undesirable emotional responses is not a character flaw.
Whether diagnosed with depression or not, anger is a fairly common emotion for many PwH. Pain takes people out of their flow and can significantly reduce their quality of life. Therefore, whether a person experiences sporadic or constant pain, it is understandable that it may make them angry.
And let’s not forget that simply living with the knowledge that pain may interrupt at any moment can be stressful and difficult not only for PwH but for their carers and relatives, too.
Another young man living with hemophilia recalls an experience with pain, occurring during a workout session, as a particular unpleasant turning point in his life:
While at first, the event had mental health consequences (hopelessness, grief and social isolation), Adolf was eventually able to overcome his mental health challenges and regain his appetite for life.
It may be helpful to realise that, although normal for people with chronic illness, anger is not a constructive emotion. Like depression, it can get in the way of positive things and deprive PwH of the mindset required for living and dreaming big.
But by finding out how to rise above mental health issues, PwH may free up mental energy and use it appropriately – namely for exciting and fulfilling things.
Before addressing how this may happen, let’s look at a third mental health problem common to PwH.
3. Anxiety and pain
Feeling anxious is a natural response to the fear of losing something valuable or cherished. From a mental health perspective, hemophilia can take on a threatening appearance and may trigger a person’s fear of losing:
- function or ability
- financial security
Aside from these specific loss-related fears, there appears to be an association between chronic pain and anxiety, whether the pain is caused by hemophilia or not.
As with the other mental health problems discussed here, anxiety may not afflict PwH exclusively. Their relatives and carers can be in need of anxiety-relieving coping mechanism, too.
And again, acceptance and understanding turn out to be part and parcel of promoting and maintaining mental health. One carer, the mother of an infant with hemophilia, writes:
In thinking about pain, it is natural to assume that the pain has its origin in an affected body part and only later has a compromising effect on the person’s mental health. But in the case of anxiety, the process may actually run in both directions. That is, anxiety has been known to exacerbate (or at least maintain) the pain caused by a physiological issue such as bleed.
In light of this potentially vicious circle, having a helpful strategy appears even more crucial.
That’s where we’ll go next.
Promoting mental health with cognitive therapy
First off, remember that it takes a qualified healthcare professional to diagnose a mental health problem. Self-diagnosing is neither advisable nor possible, although one can correctly observe mental health symptoms.
Here are some symptoms indicating different mental health problems:
pessimism, hopelessness, fatigue, feeling worthless, insomnia, irritability, suicidal thoughts
increased and rapid heart rate, sweating, grinding the teeth, headache or stomachache, shaking, dizziness
feeling nervous, restless or tense, increased heart rate, having a sense of impending danger, feeling week or tired, having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety, sweating
So how can these interrelated symptoms be addressed?
Let us look at the benefits of MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), a mental health promoting system recommended by The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and useful in the treatment of chronic pain, depression, anxiety and panic.
MBCT helps individuals question and reappraise thoughts, feelings and behaviours they have related to their pain. Gaining some insight into those is the first step toward putting adaptive and constructive reactions and thoughts in the place of unpleasant and undesirable ones.
While a comprehensive description of MBCT cannot be given here, the 10 tips below may serve to get PwH at least started on addressing mental health problems:
- Pay careful attention to your emotions and reactions. When you feel angry, frustrated or sad, try to address the cause or minimise your exposure to it.
- Try actually telling those around you what you’re going through emotionally. Keeping it inside can lead to stress or anger.
- Make time for positive things. Be thoughtful and kind to yourself when scheduling work, play and rest.
- Forgive yourself and others for mistakes. Try to actively notice the good things and nice people in your life.
- Play to your social side. Build connections to people who are helpful and kind. Online networks for PwH can be useful.
- Notice when you are meaningfully engaged, and with whom. Then try to spend more of your time meaningfully.
- Exercise regularly, eat healthy meals and try to get enough sleep.
- Don’t experiment with drugs or alcohol.
- Learn deep breathing, meditation or try mindfulness training to manage and protect yourself from stress.
- Give yourself enough time to think before you act or speak. Try not to do or say anything unless you feel as calm as possible.
And remember that everyone is different. Be sure, therefore, to check in with your healthcare professional to discuss how MBCT can benefit YOU.
In mental health, the way out is through…
As with anything valuable and meaningful, resolving a mental health situation is not a quick and easy job. Quite the contrary, it is wise to approach it with humility and patience.
On the other hand, here are some things to be excited about:
- Over time, progress is not just possible, but likely.
- If needed, your healthcare professional can assist and help you.
- For many people, the only thing needed to achieve good mental health is the mind itself.
- In other words, no special tools are necessarily required. Everyone stands at least a fighting chance.
- Experiencing difficulty probably means you’re doing something right. Don’t be discouraged.
To quote an old phrase, the way out is through.