Fibromyalgia and Mental Health

Posted by: Center for Growth Therapists

Many people in Philadelphia are affected by fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a chronic illness that causes widespread pain throughout the body, and often affects mental health. Depression and anxiety often accompany fibromyalgia and may worsen physical symptoms, while the stress of managing chronic pain and fatigue can cause changes in mood. Like other chronic illnesses, fibromyalgia can cause grief, particularly for those who are newly diagnosed or dealing with new or worsening symptoms. Although fibromyalgia was initially thought to be psychosomatic, a physical problem caused by preexisting mental health issues, it is now recognized as a legitimate physical condition. The exact cause of fibromyalgia is currently unknown, but many researchers believe that the condition is the result of a mix of physical and psychological stressors.

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome, a collection of symptoms that exist together and suggest the presence of a particular condition. The symptoms of fibromyalgia can vary widely from person to person, and no two people experience the same symptoms to the same degree. The most common physical symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • Generalized chronic pain throughout the muscles and tissues of the body.
  • Tender points, specific areas of the body that are painful when pressed lightly.
  • Chronic fatigue, ranging from moderate to severe.
  • Trouble sleeping, sleep disturbances, or non-restful sleep.
  • Frequent headaches.
  • Digestive problems such as constipation or diarrhea.
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes.
  • Heat and/or cold intolerance.
  • Hypersensitivity to smells, sounds, and/or light.

These symptoms can be managed with a variety of treatments. Medications, including some types of anti-depressants, can be used to decrease pain and mood symptoms and improve sleep. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can be used to alleviate pain by teaching coping strategies and distraction techniques. Gentle, low-impact exercise stretches tight muscles and improves circulation. Physical therapy can relieve pain and stiffness and teach you how to move your body without causing damage. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and meditation can be used to relax, reduce stress, and relieve tension.

In addition to causing a variety of physical symptoms, fibromyalgia often results in changes in mood, thinking, and concentration. Living with fibromyalgia can be stressful, and some experience depression and anxiety as the result of coping with chronic pain and fatigue. Others deal with grief while adjusting to the diagnosis of a chronic illness, the appearance of new symptoms, or changes in physical ability. Many people with fibromyalgia report trouble with concentration and short term memory, commonly described as “brain fog” or “fibro fog.”

Depression

Research has shown that at the time of diagnosis, individuals with fibromyalgia are nearly three times as likely to have depression as their peers without fibromyalgia. Although it is unclear whether this depression is caused by or is part of the complex cause of fibromyalgia, it significantly impacts daily functioning in fibromyalgia patients. Depression makes it harder to manage the stressors related to having a chronic illness, causing helplessness and hopelessness that make it difficult to adopt the lifestyle changes needed to manage pain and fatigue. Those with coexisting depression and fibromyalgia may experience chronic pain more intensely than others, as depression can cause changes in brain chemistry that lead to a higher sensitivity to pain. Treating depression is an important part of symptom- and pain-management and makes it much easier to cope with a fibromyalgia diagnosis.

Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety is another mental health diagnosis that often co-exists with fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia patients may experience physiological anxiety because of fibromyalgia-related changes to stress hormone levels. Or, they may become anxious at the prospect of living with the symptoms of fibromyalgia for the rest of their lives. Many people with fibromyalgia anxiously anticipate experiencing pain or fear that their pain will worsen over time. Managing the costs of a chronic illness, including expensive medications and regular visits to the doctor, can be another source of stress. Like depression, anxiety and stress worsen symptoms and make it more difficult to cope with having a chronic illness. Anxiety often causes or exacerbates hypersensitivity, making individuals with fibromyalgia hyper-aware of their symptoms and causing symptoms to be amplified.

Grief

Coming to terms with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia can be a difficult process involving many losses. The symptoms of fibromyalgia force some individuals to quit or change careers, while others are forced to give up favorite activities. Many people face changes in their social group, and must grieve the loss of friendships or relationships. Some fibromyalgia patients, particularly those diagnosed at a young age, must abandon or alter their dreams for the future. It is important to take time to grieve the loss of a healthy body, changes in physical ability, and changes in activity level. The stress of grieving is associated with an increase in symptoms, so processing grief is an important part of managing fibromyalgia.

Brain Fog

“Brain fog” is a commonly-used nickname for the cognitive dysfunction that many people with fibromyalgia experience. Brain fog often causes issues with concentration, short term memory, word recall, and arithmetic skills. Although the exact cause of brain fog is still unknown, it has been attributed to the fatigue and lack of restorative sleep common among those with fibromyalgia. Another possible explanation for brain fog is distraction due to chronic pain. Whatever the cause, brain fog interferes with the everyday lives of fibromyalgia patients, making it difficult to work, read, learn, and socialize.

Therapy for Fibromyalgia

Therapy can be very helpful to those with fibromyalgia, and serve a variety of purposes. Using cognitive-behavioral techniques, a therapist can help you change self-defeating beliefs, enhance your coping skills, and gain a sense of control over your chronic illness. Therapy can help you learn to manage symptoms and decrease pain by encouraging positive lifestyle changes. Relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness techniques can be used to distract from chronic pain, decrease fatigue, and lower stress levels. By teaching you skills to manage pain and fatigue, therapy can help you decrease the effects of brain fog, leading to better cognitive function. Finally, a therapist can help you address the depression and anxiety that are common among fibromyalgia patients, using many different approaches and techniques. If you are looking for a fibromyalgia therapist in Philadelphia, please call the Center for Growth at 267-324-9564.