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Julie Killion graduated from UNC-Wilmington with a BA in Psychology, and earned her Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from UNC-Charlotte. She has experience treating adults and children in outpatient, inpatient, crisis, and residential settings, and offers a person-centered approach to therapy, utilizing several different treatment modalities, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing. She currently treats ages 18+ in Wake Forest, NC, and through MindPath’s Telehealth platform, and specializes in depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, stress management, and anger management. More info at: https:///www.mindpathcare.com/ staff/julie-killion-ma-lpc-lcas-ncc/

How Mindset Helps Heal Chronic Illness

By Julie Killion, MA, LPC, LCAS, NCC

The presence of chronic illnesses seems to be rampant and rapidly growing in our society. Diagnoses of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, cancer, etc., are plaguing Americans. It can seem like everyone is sick and we are all destined to fall victim eventually. However, this may not actually be the case.

Julie Killion, MA, LPC, LCAS, NCC

More and more research reveals that many of these chronic disease states are prevent-able, even reversable. While this is incredibly hopeful news, this information does not seem to be having an impact on the growing number of people dying of these illnesses each year.

The Power of Lifestyle Choices

As an intern in graduate school, I was fortunate enough to obtain an internship at a local hospital, where I spent most of my time in the Emergency Department and the Intensive Care Unit—both of which stayed busy during my time there. My job was to see people who were in crisis and/or needed emotional support during their hospital stay. No one was especially happy to be in the hospital—that was no surprise. There were often feelings of hopelessness and helplessness related to chronic illnesses. What was surprising was the number of patients who continually presented to the hospital with the same medical issues; the staff endearingly referred to them a “frequent flyers.” It seemed that a hospital stay was more of a Band-Aid, temporarily providing relief until the next medical emergency, with no efforts towards long-term change.

Something that stuck with me over the years was a comment made by a doctor working in the ICU. He passionately described how every single person in the ICU at that moment could have prevented their current medical crisis. And, not only that, but they also had the power to reverse their current state of illness. Of course, I was intrigued because naturally the patients in the ICU were incredibly ill and needed medical intervention to even survive the rest of the day.

This doctor explained that every single person in the ICU—at least at that moment—was there because of lifestyle choices. He was both passionate and frustrated as he explained that simply taking responsibility for your own health can eliminate much of the pain and suffering he witnessed daily. The three things that this doctor was focused on were diet, exercise, and substance use. This was quite an enlightening experience for me, and years later I remember the conversation vividly. These patients had the information to know how to make changes, they simply lacked the mindset required to be able to do so.

Empowering Better Choices: A Change of Mindset

On a broad scale, what seems to be lacking is both education and empowerment. The general public would certainly benefit from education about these chronic disease states and how they can be prevented and reversed. However, as we all know, that’s not enough. While knowledge is the gateway to healthier behaviors, something more is needed to put that knowledge to work. For example, it is commonly known that cigarettes are harmful to your health, causing several medical issues including cancer, and often leading to death. But just this knowledge has not been enough to stop people from smoking. Nor is the information that eating healthy and exercising are good for your health enough to initiate those behaviors.

With both physical health and mental health, many people lack the feeling of empowerment and the belief that their decisions and behaviors can truly have an impact on their own health. I have heard people with heart disease attribute it to genetics, while ignoring the fact that they have terrible eating habits, never exercise, and are morbidly obese. The same happens in my work with people who have mental health concerns. I have had many patients tell me that they were destined to have depression and will never feel better because “it runs in the family.” While genetics do play a role, the truth is that we have more control over our bodies and minds than some people believe.

So, what we are left with is mindset. Many people who are trapped in chronic disease states, physical or mental, can get stuck in the mindset that they are powerless of their own body and mind and cannot promote change. Luckily, we know this is not true!

Even while I want to encourage people to recognize how strongly their mindset can positively affect change, I do want to acknowledge that there are legitimate social and structural limitations that can affect people’s inability to manage their own physical or mental health. These include—but are not limited to—lack of education; lack of personal and/or community resources; lack of transportation; food deserts; lack of time due to other responsibilities (financial, caring for family members, etc.); having to work multiple jobs or having to work harder due to genetic/hereditary predispositions. For some people, these difficulties— including some that are beyond their control—pose significantly greater challenges on the path to health.

Whatever your circumstances however, I truly believe that mindset can play a role in improving at least some, if not all, of the barriers you face.

The Greatest  Barrier to Change

I spend a lot of time as a therapist addressing barriers to change. Often, a person’s belief about whether change can occur is the first and greatest barrier. There is a quote that often comes to mind that expresses it best: “whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” If you believe that you cannot change the state of your body or mind, you probably won’t. If you believe that you can change the state of your body or mind, you probably will. Occasionally that observation is met with some sort of eye-roll, but we have lots of research to support its truth.

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there is a lot of focus on how our thoughts impact our behaviors and vice versa. Because we know that—even with the mindset that they cannot change or with a generally negative mindset—patients can work successfully in therapy to reframe their thoughts to be more positive and empowering. Much of the distress that we experience is due to our mindset/perspective we have of ourselves and the world, which is why changing that is so important and so impactful. As therapists, we want to not only empower, but to instill hope in those who have lost hope. It is amazing the changes that someone can make in their life if they believe they can and feel empowered to do so.

Mind-Body Connection:
Change Your Mind, Change Your Health

When discussing both physical and mental health it is important to remember that the mind-body connection is very strong. When the mind is healthy, the body is healthy, and vice versa. For this reason, when dealing with major health issues, doctors have begun to refer patients to therapists more frequently to address the mental part of the equation. Practitioners in all areas are moving towards the integration of physical health and mental health as more and more research shows that your mindset is a large part of wellness.

While many therapeutic modalities tend to focus on the past in order to address trauma, there are also several approaches that focus on the present, addressing the issues of today and the future. These methods can be helpful when addressing current health concerns. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is included in this list, as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Reality Therapy, Rational Emotive Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing. We have evidenced-based approaches that help individuals to change their mindset, and therefore change their life. We can apply this not only to changes in mental health, but also to empower and promote change in physical health.

If you or someone in your life struggles with mental health, our providers can help. Call us at 919-354-0834 or visit us at mindpathcare.com to get started.

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