Healthy Living

Lifestyle Medicine: How Mental Health Treatment Can Help Manage Chronic Disease

Aug 8 2019

When suffering from a chronic disease, turning to mental health treatment can be beneficial.

For those with a chronic disease—such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and COPD—managing your health takes a lot of mental energy. From juggling medical appointments to taking medication, you may also have other health goals such as eating more whole foods and going on a walk each day. While these goals may be based on a primary care provider’s advice, the patient is the one who turns these recommendations into reality.

As you pursue your health goals, there is another professional to consider adding to your medical team—one you might not have thought about. A mental or behavioral health provider can help you tackle the demands of managing your health day-to-day.

Crystal Williams, PsyD, clinical psychologist and behavioral health consultant at Mercy Health, calls this approach lifestyle medicine.

“We know stress affects physical health,” says Dr. Williams. “And most people need help managing stress in their lives, personally and professionally.”

What is lifestyle medicine?

The goal of lifestyle medicine is to help patients when stress impacts their health. It’s more than traditional mental health treatment and is not just for conditions like depression or anxiety. Lifestyle medicine focuses on pillars as elements of stress management. These pillars are sleep, physical movement, nutrition, stress management, and community connection. Because a lot of chronic health conditions are stress related, anyone who wants to make lifestyle changes for better overall health can benefit from this approach.

Dr. Williams is part of a primary care practice, where she provides behavioral health services to support physicians and nurse practitioners in managing patients’ chronic diseases.

“I’ve joked about being a primary care doctor for stress,” says Dr. Williams. “But I’ve always had an interest in the mind-body connection and want to be a part of it. Integration is where it’s at.”

Dr. Williams’ job is to have conversations with patients and help them find the root of their stress. Research shows that when a patient can master stress management, their overall health improves. It’s all tied together.

“If you’re going to make lasting lifestyle changes, you can benefit from the support of a team. It really does take a village—a medical village,” she says.

How can lifestyle medicine improve chronic disease?

Dr. Williams shares an example of how a patient was able to achieve her health goals by first addressing her behavioral needs.

The patient’s initial goal was to lose weight and be ready for surgery. However, her primary care provider first referred her to Dr. Williams after realizing the patient had mental barriers that were affecting her ability to lose weight.

“The patient originally came to me for anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Williams.

Through treatment, Dr. Williams learned the patient had unresolved family issues that were keeping her from making the lifestyle changes she needed to be successful in weight loss. Dr. Williams referred the patient to psychotherapy. Eventually, that treatment reduced her stress and allowed her to finally take care of her physical health.

Collaboration even continued throughout recovery after the patient successfully lost weight and underwent surgery. The surgery team, primary care provider, and behavioral health consultant worked together across teams and disciplines.

“It’s important to remember a patient is one whole person, not little pieces,” says Dr. Williams.

How can you use lifestyle medicine to improve your health?

Start with a conversation with your primary care doctor. Some practices may have a mental health professional on their team. If not, your doctor can refer you to someone to meet your needs.

You can also seek the services of a mental health professional by reaching out directly. To see a listing of Mercy Health providers, use our search tool and find one near you.

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