How to Regain Mental Health After a Serious Illness


You’ve just been put through the ringer. You’ve had a heart attack or finished a round of chemotherapy or had an aortic aneurysm repair or any other such serious health condition. For many, this kind of physical trauma can take a serious toll on mental health. It may send you into a tailspin of depression and anxiety.

Serious physical illness can affect your mental health indirectly or directly.

Indirect Effects

Serious illness may bring loss. Maybe you are temporarily unable to work at a job you had or maybe you are permanently and completely disabled. This brings with it a loss of income and loss of social interaction; possibly even loss of self-image. This can cause emotions of grief, depression and anger.

Serious illness may take away your hobbies; the things you enjoy most in your life. You may find yourself struggling to find happiness.

Also, because you are unable to participate in the activities you used to, you may find yourself excluded from events and get-togethers. Loneliness and isolation can significantly increase depression and anxiety.

Direct Effects

There are many serious illnesses that affect the mind directly. Illness can change levels of neurotransmitters and hormones. Dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are just a few of the chemicals that can cause major changes in mental health once these levels shift.

Illness may cause a major, traumatic disruption in your life. Often, these serious illnesses come without warning, and we are very little prepared for this, if at all. The change in a life may be very difficult to recover from mentally.

The First Step Is Acceptance

The only constant in life is change. Acceptance is difficult and can be painful. You must take an honest, realistic look at how and if your serious illness has changed your physical capabilities.

Are these changes permanent? You must identify what you cannot change so that you may accept it and focus on what you can control. It is what it is. Being practical and objective about your situation will greatly improve your ability to regain mental health.

Reach Out to People

Take inventory of the people that are important in your life, the people that bring you joy. Make sure you reach out to them and keep the relationships strong. Conversely, if you find there are toxic individuals in your life that are deteriorating your mental health, make sure to remove these relationships.

See if there is any way you may be helpful to other people. I know the illness may be limiting you in many ways. But, if you can find any way to help others, this may be invigorating for your soul. It does not have to be any grand scale volunteer work, although if you are able and want to do that, that is great.

Your contribution may be as simple as calling a friend weekly as a good listener and providing them with a few compliments and gratitude for their being in your life.

In addition to helping people, make sure you accept help as well. If someone wants to be there for you in your time of need, do not shut them out. It is not noble to refuse help from people who really want to do something for you. Social interaction is very important for mental health.

If you are low on people to reach out to, join a group or two. There are senior centers and lots of specific interest groups that you can find on the internet with a bit of searching. The community center and churches are other great places to meet people.

Self-Care

You cannot regain your mental health without self-care. This means, at a minimum, getting exercise and proper nutrition, along with adequate sleep. Optimize your physical health in order to optimize your mental health.

Now let’s discuss self-care for the mind. Relaxation is key. Yet, relaxing may be difficult for some. There is an art to clearing the mind and feeling at peace. Take some classes on meditation or use some of the meditation apps or YouTube videos. It may take some time to get used to if you have never meditated before.

You may also find other ways for self-care or mindfulness. Some people are able to really relax and absorb themselves in a number of hobbies or activities. Journaling does wonders for some at bringing mental peace. Another technique is taking mental vacations. You can’t find the resources or time to lay out on the beach in Hawaii for fifteen minutes to an hour.

Or can you? All you need to do is close your eyes and take your mental vacation. Relax and hear the sounds of the ocean as you picture the waves rhythmically coming in. You can even schedule your mental vacations on your calendar and take as little or as much time as you like on them.

Another way to optimize mindfulness is to be more efficient with the things you already enjoy. Make sure you are in the moment and derive the most pleasure you can from your things and experiences. Don’t just stop and smell the roses.

Stop and thoroughly enjoy the aroma of the roses while you feel the soft breeze on your face and touch the soft petals and wonder at the beauty of this creation. The food you love will taste better when you are focused on enjoying it and not thinking about the next thing on your to do list.

Find Purpose

To put it quite simply, purpose is a reason for doing something. It does not need to be grandiose or filled with importance. It is just why you are doing what you are doing.

You may be resting because you are tired. That IS purpose. You look out the window at the trees rustling because it makes you feel calm. Find what makes you happy and do it and you will be filled with purpose.

Here are some examples of things that have given people a sense of purpose after a serious illness. But, again, purpose is a very personal thing, and you will need to be honest with yourself as to what you want that to be for you.

  • Take up a new hobby or hobbies.
  • Volunteer.
  • Set some sort of goal and work towards it.
  • Take some classes and acquire a skill.
  • Become your own or your family or friends’ historian by making photo albums or scrapbooks.

Here are some ways to facilitate the joy in purpose. Celebrate your small wins. Set small, attainable, realistic goals and revel in all of your achievements. Use visualization to look forward to the goals and things you want to do.

Take the time to reflect on your daily high points and make sure you make time for that each following day. Read inspiring stories and find photos and sayings of things that motivate you and put them up where you can see them.

Let’s make sure you address and remain aware of the pitfalls that seem to rob you of purpose. One such pitfall is discouragement. What if you do not meet your goal and it seemed to be a pretty small, attainable goal? Plan for setbacks. In fact, expect them. Expect failure as a form of learning even if that learning experience is that you need to readdress and find another goal or purpose.

Set aside worry time. If you find that you have trouble doing the things you want to do because you are constantly worrying about what might happen, carve out maybe even a full half an hour of worry time each day. Set your alarm clock from start to finish for worry time and this is the only time you will allow yourself to worry all day.

When you are doing something and fear sneaks in your mind, tell yourself that this is not worry time and save the thought for later. So, what happens at worry time? Let it all out! Worry as much as you want. Get all worked up in dread if you feel like it, but once worry time is over, all other worries need to be tabled until tomorrow’s worry time.

Live in Daily Gratitude

Gratitude is an essential element of mental health. You cannot function in constant negativity. Practice healthy, positive, grateful self-talk. You will always be your greatest advocate and your own best friend. So, talk to yourself like you would your best friend.

Remain kind, always. Many people find writing more effective when experiencing inner gratitude. Writing gratitude letters and/or keeping a gratitude journal is wonderful for mental health. But, whether you write it down, say it, pray it or simply think it; be grateful.

 I do want to be clear that this is a helpful list for regaining mental health after a serious mental illness. This is not treatment for clinical depression or anxiety. If you think you may be clinically depressed or anxious, please seek medical help through a physician and trained counselor. If you are suicidal, call for help immediately at:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

If you simply would like to learn how to bounce back mentally after a serious physical illness, follow these guidelines and I suspect you will find much happiness and peace.

Have you experienced a serious illness? Did you or are you having difficulty regaining your mental health after a serious illness? How did you cope with the mental effects of having a serious illness? Do you have any advice for others in a similar situation?



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