Tick season is in full swing and no matter how closely you check yourself, there’s always a chance a small arachnid will escape your examination and leave you with a serious disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year — leaving individuals with short- or long-term symptoms. Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department and Associate Director of the School of Health and Behavioral Sciences Joseph Trunzo, Ph.D., who teaches Bryant’s “Health Psychology” course, is a practicing clinician and speaks to how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help people cope with chronic Lyme disease.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted when people are bitten by an infected tick. The bacteria, known as Borrelia burgdorferi, is corkscrew shaped and bores into the body’s cells to disrupt cellular function, which causes a variety of symptoms.
“A lot of times people will get symptoms, but they won’t realize they’ve had a bite because they don’t see the tick. The tick feeds and drops off once it’s done,” says Trunzo, who authored Living Beyond Lyme.
Common short-term symptoms include joint soreness and pain, fatigue, muscle soreness, and rashes while long-term symptoms involve brain fog, mood disturbances, and a host of other medical and psychiatric problems. If individuals receive appropriate treatment relatively quickly, Lyme disease is easier to handle.
“It’s when the infection goes undetected for extended periods of time that it can become a longer and more protracted disease process,” Trunzo says.
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Using psychology to cope with Lyme
Trunzo regularly uses ACT with his patients who suffer from chronic Lyme disease. The model helps people create a different relationship with their pain so they can move forward and live to the best of their abilities. ACT comes with six core processes that involve being open, centered, and engaged.
“People tend to have a mindset that they’ll do ‘x’ when they’re feeling well again,” Trunzo says. “Waiting until you are well can backfire and cause people to lose large swaths of their life waiting to feel better before living again.”
He encourages people to look at the activities they enjoyed prior to contracting Lyme disease and determine what made those hobbies meaningful; they should then find ways to still engage with that meaning, just in more manageable ways.
Since dealing with a chronic illness can invite negative thoughts, Trunzo recommends disengaging with a particular notion if it does not help to move a person’s life forward. For instance, thinking “this disease will run my life forever” is an unhelpful and unproductive judgment. Instead, a person should let go of this thought and stay rooted in the present moment by practicing elements of mindfulness.
Noticing your thoughts by separating your thinking self and observing self is one way a person can remain present. For someone who’s thinking “I’m a burden to my family,” they should rephrase this view to “I notice that I am having a thought that I am a burden to my family.”
Trunzo says using phrases like “I notice,” “I observe,” or “I can see that” create some separation from an individual’s thinking mind. People can even thank their mind for making them aware of certain things but recognize that they don’t want to attend to those thoughts right now because they are not important or useful.
Lyme disease, which was once isolated to the northeast, has spread to every state in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has seen an increase in Lyme disease cases, with Trunzo adding that climate change could be causing a rise in the tick population.
“If you don’t get a good hard frost and snow cover for an extended period of time over the winter, the tick populations the following spring tend to be more robust,” Trunzo says. “You can even have ticks active in the winter when normally people would consider themselves safe.”
While people should remain vigilant about checking themselves for ticks, Trunzo encourages those who have been bitten to research as much as they can about Lyme disease so they can pursue the treatment options that feel right to them.