Depression and Chronic Illness: 5 Ways to Cope

May 27, 2015, 12:37pm EDT

Whether you’ve been newly diagnosed with kidney disease, or have been living with it for a long time, you’ve likely experienced some “lows” in your mood. Depression is common in those with chronic illnesses, and kidney disease is no exception. It’s very common to feel sad, scared, frustrated or angry about a chronic illness. It’s also normal for your emotions and feelings to change throughout the course of your diagnosis and treatment.

If you feel sad and overwhelmed by your kidney disease, does this mean that you are depressed? When should you seek help? To help patients manage depression and sadness, the National Kidney Foundation offers 5 tips to know the difference between the “kidney blues” and depression, as well as ways to cope.

These tips focus on you, the person experiencing chronic kidney disease. We have heard many responses that those closest to you, might experience feelings similar to yours. Subsequent articles in this series will focus on your family and how living with a chronic disease is often a “family affair.”

  1. Know the symptoms. Advanced kidney disease and depression share many of the same symptoms. These include fatigue, sleep problems, poor appetite, and difficulty concentrating. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are depressed, but it’s important to talk with your healthcare team to find out what is causing these symptoms. Feeling sad at times is normal, especially if you are coping with chronic illness. Sometimes these feelings may be temporary or fleeting, and other times they may last longer. If your sadness doesn’t lessen over several weeks, talk with a member of your healthcare team who can help you figure out if your symptoms are related to kidney failure or if you are experiencing depression. Some additional symptoms of depression include difficulty doing things you usually enjoy, feelings of guilt, shame, worthlessness, or hopelessness, crying, sadness or irritability, withdrawing from friends or family and thoughts of harming yourself.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. While depression is a common occurrence in kidney patients, the good news is that it is very treatable! Your healthcare team can help you find additional support and ways to cope, which might include medication, counseling or other strategies. Seeking help doesn’t mean that you’re “crazy” or weak. It’s actually a sign of strength to understand that you need help and to ask for it. With the right support, you can learn to overcome depressive symptoms and become a stronger and healthier person.
  3. Talk it out. Remember that you are not alone. Confiding in someone and seeking out counseling can help lessen the weight on your shoulders. Socializing with friends and family is also important, because having a strong support network can put you in a better position to cope with the feelings you’re experiencing. The National Kidney Foundation offers a mentoring program called NKF Peers to connect people who want support with someone who has been there before. This program helps support people preparing for dialysis or a transplant and those who are already on dialysis or with a transplant.
  4. Be patient and try to be positive. Think about what hasn’t changed since you became sick. Recall the positive things in your life and things for which you are grateful. Even with treatment, be prepared that it may take time for your mood to improve gradually, not immediately.
  5. Make “me” time. Kidney disease and kidney failure can affect the time you have for relationships, employment and leisure, but try to set boundaries around the illness. Don’t allow kidney disease to consume all of your thoughts and activities. Some people find it difficult to deal with the amount of time spent on dialysis because they feel like they are missing out on opportunities to do other things. Try to carve out time with friends and family. Also, aim for 8 hours of sleep per day and don’t underestimate the power of exercise, which releases powerful endorphins – chemicals that have been shown to boost mood and reduce feelings of pain