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What use is a diagnosis?

Laura Abbey Date: 14/07/2016
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What use is a diagnosis?

People can have mixed reactions after receiving a diagnosis. The range of emotions experienced can include relief, confusion, fear, embarrassment, grief or empowerment. This is normal.

Many people ask whether diagnosis is a helpful part of recovery. So, the SANE Help Centre has listed some of the positive and negative outcomes many people experience.

Upsides – receiving a diagnosis can provide . . .

1. Understanding

A diagnosis can provide insight into your patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. It provides awareness of why you do what you do. Knowing your triggers means you can develop coping mechanisms and make informed choices in your life. As a result you are likely to face fewer surprises and be better placed to deal with challenges that arise.

2. Connection

A diagnosis can help you realise that you’re not alone. There is a name for what you are experiencing and others experience it too.

You can reduce isolation by connecting with people who share your diagnosis. Support groups or forums provide an opportunity to share personal experiences and helpful strategies.

Educating family and friends about your diagnosis can strengthen your relationships. This will help them understand the challenges you face, accept and support you.

3. Relief from self-blame

Recognising that symptoms are part of a psychological disorder — rather than character flaws — can lessen shame, guilt and self-criticism.

A diagnosis can help you see that you are not at fault, nor are your reactions to the world ‘wrong’. Rather, you are experiencing a difficult condition. Additionally, you can increase self-compassion by separating the disorder from your concept of your ‘self’, which aids recovery.

4. Effective treatment

Knowing your diagnosis will inform your decisions. Some treatments or approaches are likely to be more effective for different psychological disorders. Understanding the problem empowers you to do something about it, either by researching the disorder and self-care strategies, or by targeting specific symptoms with the help of a clinician.

Downsides – receiving a diagnosis can trigger . . .

1. Distress

Receiving a diagnosis may feel like you are being forced to acknowledge that you are not well. It means the end of denial and may result in negative thoughts about yourself. A diagnosis may make your problems seem ‘real’ or reinforce ideas that you are not coping, such as ‘my issue is so bad it has a label’. If diagnosis is not followed by an explanation of available treatments it can cause confusion and fear.

2. Stigma

You may worry that being ‘labeled’ will change the way others view you. Sometimes it can feel like people make assumptions based on your diagnosis, or are dismissive of your concerns because you are experiencing a psychological disorder, for instance, claiming ‘it’s all in your head’. Your self-esteem may suffer because you believe you are no longer as good or capable as others due to your diagnosis.

3. Preoccupation

Fixating on a diagnosis can lead you into the trap of not seeing yourself as a whole person. Herein lies the risk of your identity becoming fused with your diagnosis, increasing feelings of being ‘stuck’ and decreasing self-worth. Viewing psychological disorders in an all-or-nothing way, rather than as a spectrum of unhelpful patterns that everyone may experience to some degree, can lead to feeling ‘broken’ or hopeless.

4. Helplessness

People often believe that they are stuck with a diagnosis for life, thinking that they have no control over and can’t escape from the disorder. Feelings of powerlessness may stop you from instigating or recognising changes, which creates a self-perpetuating cycle of distress. Seeing a diagnosis as a medical issue in need of a ‘cure’ can also prevent you from recognising your own power to improve your life.

The way you look at your diagnosis can change how helpful it is

Recognising that a diagnosis is not a ‘label’, but rather a term to describe a pattern of symptoms, can help you see your diagnosis in a more balanced way.

Your diagnosis is not who you are, it is just something you are experiencing. It is not a label stuck on you for life, it can change through recovery or due to misdiagnosis. Comparing a psychological disorder to a physical injury or illness, such as a broken leg or diabetes, can help to create a sense of separation between the diagnosis and yourself.

Focusing on the function of the diagnosis is also helpful. Remember, a diagnosis can help you identify what you are facing and allows you to do something about it. You can choose to ignore the ‘label’, and instead target the symptoms that affect your life. Think of your diagnosis as a tool you can use to navigate your recovery and get back to being yourself.

Consider how you would like to involve others with your diagnosis. If you don’t know how to move forward, talk to your treating professional – that’s what they are there for! Receiving a diagnosis can be a big adjustment, so allow yourself time to process and don’t be afraid to talk to someone, it can be a great help. Remember you have a right to privacy and can choose who you share your diagnosis with. You are not obliged to tell everyone, rather, you can make decisions based on who you think will be a good support.

Finally, remember that regardless of your diagnosis you can still take the lead in your own life. You know what is important to you and you can choose your own recovery goals to create a meaningful life for yourself.

Laura Abbey is a SANE Help Centre Advisor and is currently studying a Masters in Clinical Psychology.

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