The trials and tribulations of chronically ill people may result in couragous, resilient, creative people with, and desire to help others. However, inevitably having to deal with all the medical procedures, uncertainty, and instability, can give a person many emotional wounds. The psychological effects of chronic illness are multiple and may surface when we subconsciously make associations between past and future triggers.

The Psychological Effects of Chronic Illness

woman suffering from Psychological Effects of Chronic Illness

For example, Sally, who has suffered from chronic illness, is working a job. She receives feedback from a manager that she does excellent work, but needs to be more careful with her punctuality. This is a painful situation for most people, as criticism can be very unnerving.

Sally is really torn apart by these words and reacts very dramatically, and even sleeps on the weekend till the late afternoon. If she were to rate her depression from 0-10, with 10 being the worst ever, she says it’s an 8/10. Based on these facts, this situation doesn’t warrant a sense of gloom or excessive desperation.

She felt that her manager’s reaction was odd: first, he praised her work before giving feedback about her tardiness. This might save Sally more heartache down the road if there is a strict policy at work against this.

However, Sally is not reacting to her manager’s feedback; she is responding to her shame of being constantly at doctor’s appointments when she was in 3rd grade, and how other students would tease her about being late or absent. This type of reaction is an application of the recovery slogan: when it’s hysterical; it’s HISTORICAL.

So, how can we handle these situations? And why are they related?

On a physical level, they are different, but if we pull the microscope out and take a deeper look, they are actually in many respects identical. In using EMDR, we look at a situation with a few precise criteria (Kiessling, 2019). In a full-blown EMDR intervention, there are others, but these are the primary.

Change the ‘I am not good enough’ Mentality

happy woman

Situation 1: Feedback From the Boss

Negative Belief (This is the default belief, often exaggerated): “I am a failure, I am not good enough or different.”

Emotions: Depression (8/10)

Body source: A feeling in the stomach

Now, if we were to take this situation with a snapshot of this cluster (negative belief, emotion, and body source), we could use a technique to identify previous situations when that same cluster appeared. Ideally, we would find the earliest time, but that’s not always necessary. So, getting back to that school situation.

Situation 2: Late/Absent from School Very Often Due to Illness

Emotions: Depression

Negative Belief: I am a lousy student/ I am a failure

Body source: Stomach

We see something interesting – this cluster is identical! They share the same belief of failure, the feeling of depression, and a feeling in the stomach. We can probably find this cluster in many different experiences Sally has had across her lifespan, past-present, including the source of future anxiety. In EMDR terms, these are called ‘negative neural networks’ (NNN). Often, these networks have memories that become frozen and isolated from positive neural networks, which “know better,” but we can’t feel them because of the effect of trauma.

Final Thoughts

The good news is that we are not slaves to these clusters, and there are many ways an experienced therapist can get underneath to help with the psychological effects of chronic illness. It helps the client to reduce the distress caused by these clusters, and then reconnect them (integration) with positive neural networks and update the memories.

So, next time you see yourself flying off the handle at something small, you may be time-traveling (to your past) without a DeLorean and Flex capacitor.

Yonason (Ron) Witonsky, LCSW EMDR trained, is a Trauma and Crisis therapist in private practice in New York City. He is the founder and clinical director of NYCSUPPORT.ORG and has first-hand experience with chronic illness in a close family member. Yonason is happy to answer your comments and questions and can be reached at 718-614-5449 or emailed at