People go to physicians, surgeons, chiropractors, physical therapists, etc. hoping for relief of some ailment. Pain medication for pain, surgery to correct an injury and offer pain relief, physical therapy to strengthen the body for better mobility and pain relief the list goes on.
The field of medicine has made amazing advancements over the years, offering treatments that were not even conceivable 25 years ago. Doctors frequently try to problem solve with patients when traditional recommendations are not successful. Despite all of these efforts, there are times when I did everything my doctor told me to do, but I’m not getting better. This can lead to much frustration, anxiety and fear you will never get better. This may sound familiar to you, whether you experienced it firsthand or heard someone talk about it.
As a clinical psychologist working with patients in a hospital setting, I have encountered many patients who fall into this category. They follow their doctor’s recommendations, yet they struggle to get better. Recovery is inherently slow. This can be quite distressing, exhausting and interfere with quality of life.
There is extensive research identifying anxiety and depression as barriers to a successful medical treatment outcome, including surgery. When someone has experienced pain, injury or illness, it is normal to become discouraged, frustrated, anxious, depressed or scared. Whether these reactions occur before, during, or after the medical situation, the result appears to be the same: a challenging recovery.
Psychotherapy can enhance medical treatment by reducing the emotional and mental barriers. The goal is to help you to achieve the best possible outcome. Psychologists can help patients with:
- Suffering due to pain, debility or illness: It can be difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel when you never get a break from suffering. Frustration tolerance can drop, irritability can increase, and just getting through the day can be challenging. A psychologist can help you develop strategies to manage pain and make adjustments living with your situation.
- Stressors: We all have stress. It’s part of life. Sometimes pain or medical issues can put our stress level over-the-top, making everything seem overwhelming and out of your control. A psychologist can help you cope with your stressors so you can regain control of your life.
- Fear of re-injury: After making the decision to undergo surgery, you want it to work. Sometimes the fear of re-injury can inhibit your rehabilitation. These inhibitions can exacerbate pain and slow progress. A psychologist can help you understand work through and develop strategies to overcome your fears.
- Fear of inability to return to sport or daily activities: Fear you may not return to the same level of activity or sport is understandable. Sometimes these fears inhibit your ability to recover successfully, a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. A psychologist can help you take control over your fears and reach your potential.
- Lack of understanding of your medical treatment: Medical jargon and a new situation is a lot to digest. This can lead to unnecessary anxiety as treatment may seem daunting. Googling to understand my diagnosis frequently leads to misinterpretation of your situation and increased anxiety. A psychologist can explain your diagnosis, recommended strategies to cope and help you to be well-prepared.
- Expectations differ from your doctor’s: Doctors and patients can have different expectations of what medical treatment and surgery can provide. When this occurs, recovery can be quite frustrating. A psychologist can help you identify and understand your expectations, the doctor’s expectations and bring them closer together.
- Communication with your medical team: White Coat Syndrome is real. This syndrome occurs when blood pressure rises in a doctor’s office due to elevated fear. Fear and anxiety make it difficult to ask questions, communicate your concerns or even accurately explain your symptoms. A psychologist can help you to be prepared when speaking to your treatment team.
- Trauma: Injuries are often a result of a traumatic experience, such as a car accident, fall, or sports-injury. One moment you are fine, and the next moment something life-changing has occurred. Not only are you dealing with a physical/medical recovery, but you are processing the traumatic event. Reactions to trauma can include anxiety, depression, fear, and performance inhibition. A psychologist can help you to work through your experience and use it to recover.
Physical recovery is a process which frequently affects our overall well-being. Working with a psychologist can be an effective way to achieve optimal performance in any part of your life. Psychotherapy is a personalized treatment to help you find the most effective approach to achieving individual goals.
Dr. Julia Kim is a Clinical Psychologist at Hospital for Special Surgery. Dr. Kim is the first Clinical Psychologist to formally work within the HSS family and her focus is to develop an Integrative Care Program, designed to incorporate psychological services to a multi-disciplinary care team. She works closely with physicians and surgeons to optimize the best possible medical outcome.