Clinical Psychology for Physical Health

What is Clinical Psychology for Physical Health?

Clinical Psychology for Physical Health focuses on helping adults from all walks of life to cope with and adjust to their diagnosis of life-limiting or life-threatening illness. People who work with clinical psychologist Dr. John Donohue, our physical health specialist, present with a range of health issues such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, motor neuron disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, renal or cardio problems, digestive issues, and unexplained medical symptoms to name a few.

John works with people to help them to express, understand, and manage the emotional, psychological, and social impact of living with a serious health condition. He offers a safe, confidential, compassionate space for people to explore their fears and concerns. 

If you recently received a diagnosis that you are struggling to come to terms with, or if you are currently receiving treatment for a life-limiting or life-threatening illness, you may want to consider an appointment with a psychologist. People who are in recovery, or those who are maintaining their health while living with a chronic illness may also benefit from connecting with a specialist clinical psychologist.

Physical health can influence psychological and emotional health

Everyone at some point in their lives experiences ill health. For the most part, thankfully, these episodes are short-lived, and with the help of loved ones and friends we can manage being unwell, getting the right treatment, and recovering, so that we return to our day-to-day life without much distress or strain.

Sometimes, sadly, this isn’t the case.

Some of us are confronted with serious conditions and face significant and unwanted changes in our health. Doctors sometimes have the difficult job of giving a diagnosis which will dramatically change a person’s lifestyle, or tragically limit the length of their life. While everyone responds differently to hearing this sort of news, for most of us it can be an overwhelming experience.

Receiving a diagnosis of a life-limiting or life-threatening illness can be very difficult to deal with. When we get this sort of news, we face not only the impact of the illness on our bodies and minds, but also on our life plans, our hopes and expectations, and on our relationships with our loved ones – the family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues who care for us, support us, and share our experiences.

In our Clinical Psychologist John’s experience, particularly in working with people receiving a diagnosis of cancer, patients tend to think immediately of the impact of their illness on their loved ones, even before considering themselves.

While it’s often necessary to begin treatment and management of the physical and medical components to these diagnoses, there are psychological, emotional and social effects on the person and those closest to them which are sometimes overlooked or neglected. While everyone is busy with the illness, the person who is ill can go unseen.


In short, there is a medical story and the sometimes unspoken personal story of any diagnosis.


The medical profession is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the personal story of illness. Many doctors care as much about their patient’s mood as they do about the physical and medical feedback when they check in on how someone is doing.  Even so, medical professionals may feel poorly equipped or overstretched to adequately tackle each patient’s additional needs.


For many of us facing serious illness, the journey from noticing symptoms to diagnosis, treatment and recovery can be overwhelming. We experience fear, loneliness, confusion, anxiety, anger, and depression – some of a whole host of emotions that we haven’t chosen and now have to contend with alongside our physical symptoms. Just managing these experiences can consume us, adding even more to the distress and burden of illness.

Helping people to make sense of these psychological and emotional experiences and find a way through them is at the heart of clinical psychology for physical health.

Psychologists working in physical health are acutely aware that the personal is affected by the physical. They know that it makes a difference to patients to consider the “who” that is diagnosed as much as considering the “what” of diagnosis and treatment. Their focus is on the person who is ill, not only their illness.


The role of clinical psychologists in physical health

Psychologists work alongside patients to help them adjust to their diagnosis, and the associated health and lifestyle changes. They help us to cope with the adverse effects of treatment itself, and support us to face and overcome the distress and discomfort that naturally arrives with health-related challenges. Working with a psychologist, we learn to develop resilience in the ongoing course of treatments.

While having support throughout treatment and recovery is hugely valuable, psychologists are aware that the aftermath of treatment can be also be problematic for patients. The return to life outside of hospitals and medical teams can be much more challenging that we would hope. Just because the medical story ends, it doesn’t mean that the personal story does as well, and so your work with your psychologist may continue alongside your journey post-medical treatment.

One example of this is in managing the fear of illness recurrence. This fear can greatly interfere with quality of life. Psychologists know that patients benefit from care that continues after medical treatment comes to an end. Adjustment is more of a marathon than a sprint and psychologists are keen to support patients over the long-term – from diagnosis, through treatment and into rehabilitation back into day to day life.


I have a good support system around me. Should I still consider seeing a psychologist?

When deciding if an appointment with a psychologist might be helpful, a question that understandably comes up is:

“If people have family and friends, is it necessary to see clinical psychologist to talk about their health at all? Everyone wants to help and to be there for them…aren’t they supported within their family?”

When we are lucky enough to have people around us who care, it can be difficult to understand how something like talking to a professional about how we are coping might help. On face value, it seems that support is available to us, but paradoxically, we may actually feel more isolated even as everyone is rushing forward to help.

Physical illness and the ongoing incapacity caused by both the illness and their treatments (such as fatigue) can lead to changes in how we relate to the world around us, and to the people who are important to us.  We might feel that we can’t fulfill the roles we were previously expected to, or that we can’t contribute as much as we have previously in family life or in work. Our minds begin to tell us that we have become a drain on others. We might come to feel we are letting people down, and worry that we are causing our loved ones concern and hardship. In some cases, we can experience deep shame.

As we try to reduce the strain on our loved ones, we may self-censor, deflect, minimise, or dismiss the darkest of our worries, fears, and concerns. We hope to avoid causing even further distress to the people we care about.

When someone asks “how are you?” the default response becomes some version of “I’m fine”. Many of us respond automatically to this every day question without giving it much thought. In the midst of serious illness, psychological isolation can become the outcome. As we try to protect those around us from our experiences, we find ourselves with nobody to confide in. We begin to feel more and more alone.

In a situation where emotional support is desperately needed, the loving desire to care for and protect others comes with the unspoken cost of suppressing often deeply felt distress and fear.

Clinical Psychologist John Donohue, our physical health specialist here at Evidence-Based Therapy Centre, finds that many people whom he supports benefit from adding a psychologist to their team. Having a neutral, non-medical professional listen as you to give voice to the most heartfelt and troublesome of thoughts and emotions can bring comfort, understanding, and strength.

Standing side by side with patients in their moments of deepest struggle, and helping them to step out of silence and shame is perhaps the soul of clinical psychology for physical health.



If you would like an appointment with Dr John Donohue you can call the clinic on 091 727777 or get in touch via the contact page.