Physical health problems and persistent physical symptoms

Are you…

  • Managing a long term health condition like diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or cardiovascular disease?
  • Living with persistent physical symptoms like fatigue, chronic pain or stomach problems?
  • Feeling low and/or stressed about your physical symptoms?

Did you know that in addition to medicines and medical treatments, there are strategies you can learn to help manage physical symptoms like pain, fatigue, breathlessness or palpitations? These strategies are not going to make your physical symptoms disappear, but they can help you to cope better. They can also improve your quality of life by helping you to engage in things that matter to you most.

Living with a physical health condition can be hard. We know that physical symptoms can cause distress but they can also create additional demands, for example, you might need to attend additional appointments and adjust your day-to-day life. Have you ever stopped to think how you might feel about all of this? Do you ever notice yourself feeling a bit down or anxious? If so, you are not alone.

We know physical health conditions and persistent physical symptoms (such as irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia) can have a huge impact on a person’s sense of wellbeing. We know from research that our emotional wellbeing can also impact our physical health in the long run.

Read about Nasma and Jack's experiences

Nasma: 75 years old, living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD):

“COPD makes me so breathless. It used to terrify me. It would get so bad sometimes that I thought I just wasn’t able to get any air into my lungs and was about to die. I became so anxious I stopped going out. I even stopped spending time with my grandchildren. That started to make me feel really down. My GP referred me to see the psychological wellbeing practitioner at my surgery. Initially, I thought it was going to be a waste of time; after all, COPD is a physical problem. I was surprised. The worker showed me how what happens in my body is linked to how I feel, what I think and what I do. I was amazed how anxiety made my breathlessness worse. The relaxation exercises I was given are great. They help calm me down and make me feel more in control of my breathing. I was also supported to start doing more things again as I became less worried about becoming breathless. I still have COPD. I still get breathless, but I feel more like me again.”

Jack: 35 years old, living with chronic pain:

“I have struggled with pain in my back and tender muscles all over my body since an accident 7 years ago. Medication helps a bit but I still struggled with the pain. To start with, I was angry with my GP for suggesting I see a psychologist. Was she suggesting the pain I experience is all made up? I ended up going out of desperation really. The psychologist immediately reassured me that she knew my pain was real. She gave me some strategies for managing my pain. The most helpful thing I learned was realising how my activity levels trapped me in a vicious cycle that made my pain worse. I felt really supported in finding the right amount of activity for me. I’m glad I went to see the psychologist at my surgery. My pain is still there unfortunately, but I cope so much better now.”

What can I do about it?

Nasma and Jack are just two examples of people who have engaged in psychological therapy to help them cope with physical symptoms with a successful outcome. If you have a physical health condition or are experiencing persistent physical symptoms, why not see if you could benefit too?

In the meantime, there is a number of useful self-help strategies that can help you cope with your physical symptoms.

Exercise: regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, will help you combat low mood and improve motivation. This is true for everyone, even people who have physical health problems or persistent physical symptoms. Aim to do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week but you will need to build up gradually if you have been inactive for some time. Moderate exercise should make you feel slightly out of breath and tired. Going for a brisk walk is a good example. Click here to learn more about the benefits of physical exercise.

Pacing: If you have a health problem that causes pain or fatigue it is important to pace out your activities. Try to avoid doing everything you can on a ‘good day’ to make up for a bad day when you have not felt able to do much at all. This can lead people to get trapped in a “boom or bust” cycle which can be demoralising. In some instances, it may lead people to give up altogether. Instead, try engage in a moderate amount of activity everyday regardless of your symptoms and make sure that you take regular breaks. This will give you a better sense of control over your life rather than your physical health condition being in control.

Smoking and drinking: Although it can be tempting to smoke or drink to make you feel better when you are trying to cope with physical illness or persistent physical symptoms, in the long run it will make things worse. Drink alcohol in moderation and, if you smoke, try to give up. The NHS and your GP provide free support to people who would like to stop smoking.

Understanding your condition: some people find that reading about depression can help. There are many books based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These books can help you understand more about your psychological problems and learn ways of overcoming them by changing your thinking and behaviour. To find out more about recommended books click here.

If you would like to know more about how Psychological Therapy can help you, please contact us.  Alternatively, you may wish to speak to your GP about a referral to our service.