What’s the Difference Between Chronic Disease Distress & Depression?

Despite my educational and practicum background in counselling, I hadn’t heard the term “chronic disease distress” before I attended the World Pain Summit this past October. When we think of mental health issues in relation to chronic illness and chronic pain, only anxiety and depression come up. This makes sense since the rates of anxiety and depression in those with chronic illness are slightly higher than in the general population (reports vary exactly how much, and it does depend on the condition). Learning about chronic disease distress, I realize that’s actually what I had – not anxiety – when I was first dealing with my illness and attended therapy myself. I don’t know what my therapist would have defined my condition as, but I fit the description better than anxiety or depression.

During the hight of my chronic disease distress I had the best support (RIP).

What is chronic disease distress? This is distress that comes with the stress of having a chronic health condition. It has some overlapping symptoms with both anxiety and depression, which can include anxious (catastrophizing) thoughts, rumination, sadness and crying, difficulty sleeping, etc. In CDD this is more related to the illness itself, rather than other areas of life. Now, that’s not to say that it doesn’t impact other areas of life. Having a chronic illness clearly does, but the distress all relates back to the illness at the end. If you’re able to go into remission or get a handle on your physical symptoms so they are less impactful, typically the distress goes down as well (the distress itself can also be treated but I’ll get to that in a moment).

Chronic Disease Distress doesn’t have to last forever.

What is depression? Clinical depression (major depressive disorder) is a set a symptoms that include, but aren’t limited to, feelings of sadness, worthlessness, guilt, loss of interest in activities, difficulty sleeping, difficulty with thinking, lack of energy, thoughts of suicide, and so on. Not everyone who is depressed has clinical depression (you can have some symptoms but not enough to get that diagnosis). Depression is a world wide epidemic and has a significant impact on people’s lives.

Some researchers have come up with a scale to measure chronic disease distress. This scale includes measures for emotional burden (of the illness), regimen distress (lifestyle impacts), patient-provider distress (medical gaslighting would fall in this category), social support distress, and then a total score. Only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose any mental health condition. Personally, I try not to worry too much about a diagnosis (unless a medication is warranted) and otherwise focus on the symptoms and distress facing you, me, or anyone else.

What do we do about chronic disease distress? Obviously seeking counselling/therapy from a qualified mental health professional (preferably one who specializes in chronic illness) is going to be the best route to go. Otherwise, certainly self-help sections in your library or bookstore, or listening to podcasts on the topic are good ideas. Support groups as well can be very helpful. In the meantime, personally I find mindfulness a good place to start. There is a lot of evidence of it being helpful (plus I’ve personally found it helpful!). Mindfulness doesn’t have to mean meditation, but if mindfulness is the muscle, meditation is the best exercise for the muscle. I have formal (meditation) and informal (non-meditation) mindfulness practices on my YouTube channel.

I hope this helps you understand the difference between CDD and depression. If you have questions, feel free to reach out. For now, keep making the most of it!

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