Emotional Impact of Chronic Kidney Disease


The diagnosis of Chronic Kidney Disease and the eventual requirement for treatment can be tremendously stressful for the affected individual and the significant others in the person’s life. When someone is facing health difficulties then all the people in the person’s support system are affected. Not only will the person with Chronic Kidney Disease be faced with  “role adjustment” but those around the patient will also have to adapt.  Changes can affect all aspects of life from emotional, vocational (work), financial, sexual and physical appearance.

The news of Chronic Kidney Disease can be debilitating and frightening. Often people feel “numb” or in disbelief when their Nephrologist (Kidney Doctor) first tells them that their kidneys are not working. Chronic Kidney Disease can be associated with other health problems too like heart conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity.
Many people simply cannot believe that their health has deteriorated to the point that they may eventually require dialysis treatment.

It is common to experience a whole gambit of emotional reactions to the news of chronic kidney failure. Individuals may feel angry, perhaps with themselves for not making previous lifestyle changes, or they may project their anger on to others through blame. Some people react with profound sadness and hopelessness. There may be a fear of becoming a “burden” to family.  Some become overwhelmed as they struggle to make some sense out of their kidney failure. Some find the news of their condition to be liberating as it validates their symptoms. The itchy skin, the bad taste in their mouth, the fatigue that they have worried about and tried to understand now has meaning.

Acceptance of life with a chronic condition reminds us of our own fragility and mortality. Family members and loved ones are also trying to understand and adjust to what living with kidney disease means.  

Many people are reluctant to express fear of treatment procedures, especially of needles. Many younger patients more specifically are preoccupied with body image that may change with fistula creation and T-tube insertion. Patients my fear ridicule or rejection because of their new body appearance. They may feel sensitive and their self-esteem may diminish only adding to the “chaos” in their life and feelings of loss of control.

It is important to understand that all persons affected with Chronic Kidney Disease react differently. There is no right way or wrong way to react to Chronic Kidney Disease. As we are unique persons our reactions will be unique.

As Renal Social Workers we often meet with individuals who are very angry that they have worked and contributed meaningfully to society all of their life who now feel “short changed” with this diagnosis.

It is important to understand that your feelings are normal and that others often experience similar reactions. As Renal Social Workers we encourage open ventilation of feelings, concerns and worries. This in turn facilitates emotional adjustment, healing and adaptation. Talking to others rather than holding in all of your feelings prevents feelings of isolation and anxiety during a time when you need ongoing support and acceptance.

We recognize that you are the same person who you were prior to a diagnosis of Chronic Kidney Disease. Hence if you were likely to keep your feelings private then we don’t expect you to radically change to become comfortable in telling everyone your troubles.

The baggage that you carry in addition to how you have coped in other life challenging times helps to anticipate how you might react emotionally to Chronic Kidney Disease. Open communication helps to prevent arguments and escalation of anger in a time when this would be counterproductive during this difficult time of emotional transition. It allows others to reach out to help you.

The renal social worker is unique in examining the “dance” of the patient’s interaction with their environment (family, friends, employment). The main function of the renal social worker is to help the patient to interface with his current environment and work through feelings, fears, and attitudes while striving toward realistic adjustment and a plan of future life with chronic illness.

Your renal social worker cans assist you in coping with psychosocial reactions associated with Chronic Renal Disease as you walk down that long and winding path.