An unexpected medical diagnosis is often an unfamiliar ambiguity entailing judgment beyond just a label. It is the disappointed identity given at birth due to a congenital malformation, or life-changing, ‘how can this be?’ malignant finding that separates the yesterdays from the tomorrows. Lead into an unincorporated world, life changes both physically and emotionally, and the verdict prevails: Get the second opinion. Research. Helplessness. Make decisions. Question everything. Doctors. Surgeons. Why me? Tests. Pain. More tests. Phone calls. The unknown. Wait. Treatment.
Modern medicine has allowed us to get through the physicality of illness, keeping our bodies alive, and often, thriving. Life returns, but the normalcy that was once experienced is altered. Our minds struggle.
As a clinician, the work is balancing this paradigm in those affected by medical illness.
Focusing on the emotional impact of diagnosis is incredibly underrepresented in both the mental health and medical fields, while the need is ever-growing. People of all ages, from infancy to later adulthood, experience acute and chronic disease. Significance is placed on the physical treatment and recovery, relating healing to eradication of the disease. When physical control of the body is surrendered to medical professionals, the mind follows suit. The emotional experience is very seldom addressed, and left to process internally. Identity – the entity used to describe the self to create a foundation of independence and confidence – is uncertain. Exploring and processing the emotions encountered by one’s medical illness in a structured, therapeutic environment can harness healthy, positive change in the mental processing of a patient with medical illness. As clinicians, it is imperative we present ourselves differently than our physical-healing consumed surroundings. We must encourage patients to make a connection to their sense of self in a new light, encompassing the adjustment, stress, anxiety, confusion, pain, and uncertainty that a patient experiences from diagnosis to treatment and well in to recovery. Emotional healing is crucial to physical healing, and when the two are addressed in unison, the potential for health in all regards can ensue and cultivate.
A physician prevents and cures illnesses of the body, where a therapist does such of the mind. When patients with medical illness enter into therapy, the fragility of their entire being is evident. Still, therapy nurtures progress and vigor, allowing patients to make additions to their original label; ones that emphasize their sense of control: Process. Support. Strength. Courage. Life.