Graves disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the thyroid gland. An autoimmune disorder occurs when the immune system turns against your body. Graves disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, or the overproduction of thyroid hormones. Hormones produced by the thyroid gland play important roles in the functioning of multiple body systems; therefore, the hyperthyroidism caused by Graves’ disease can result in a myriad of symptoms. Educating yourself about Graves’ disease, providing mental support, and providing physical support will help you be supportive of a family member who has Graves’ disease.

 

1

Educating Yourself about Graves Disease

1. Learn about the cause and physical symptoms of Graves’ disease. In this autoimmune disease, the immune system creates antibodies that cause the thyroid gland to produce more thyroid hormone than is needed by the body. The disease is most common in women over twenty years old and may be genetic.
  • Common symptoms include enlargement of the thyroid gland, sensitivity to heat, tremors in the hands or fingers, unexplained weight loss, erectile dysfunction, menstrual changes, reduction of libido, bulging eyes, frequent bowel movements, thickening of the skin on the tops of feet, and heart palpitations.
  • Graves’ ophthalmopathy can include loss of vision, light sensitivity, inflammation of the eyes, double vision, pain in the eyes, puffy eyelids, and exophthalmos or bulging eyes.
  • Graves’ dermopathy, while uncommon, occurs when the skin on the shins and tops of feet reddens and thickens.

 

2. Learn about the psychiatric manifestations of Graves’ disease. These mental symptoms can include depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and sometimes cognitive dysfunction. Understand that even after medical treatment for hyperthyroidism these psychiatric manifestations may remain and the person may need psychiatric treatment, such as psychotropic drugs.
 
3. Learn about treatments for Graves’ disease. People with Graves’ disease need to consult with a doctor or endocrinologist to manage their disease. Many people have success treating the disease with medications such as beta blockers and anti-thyroid medications. For others, radioiodine therapy or thyroid surgery are viable treatment options. People with eye symptoms can benefit from eye drops, special lenses for glasses, and external radiation to mitigate inflammation.
4.Learn about support networks for families and people with Graves’ disease. 
Try contacting the Graves’ Disease & Thyroid Foundation. Established in 1990, this nonprofit organization provides services to patients, education about Graves’ disease, and a support community for patients and caregivers alike.

 

2

Providing Emotional Support

1.Ask the family member how you can help. Living with a chronic disease means a person may not be able to do all the things they could do before they became ill. Ask them if there are things you can do to make life a bit easier. Urge them to be clear about specific tasks you can help them accomplish.
  • Try saying, “Ken, I know you get overwhelmed when you have to go see the endocrinologist. Would it help if I came with you?”
  • You could also say, “Honey, I know you’ve developed insomnia because of the Graves’ disease. Since you’re sleeping less, would it be helpful if I get the kids up in the morning?”

 

2. Listen to your family member. More often than not being diagnosed and living with an autoimmune disease is overwhelming and can be frightening. It is critical that you listen to what your loved one is saying when they talk about the physical, psychological, and emotional manifestations of the disease in their daily lives.
  • Consider a daily check-in. This could be as simple as asking, “Kyla, how are you feeling today?” This allows the person a space to talk about their needs and day-to-day experience living with the disease.

 

3. Help your family member manage stress. Physical and emotional stress can trigger the onset of Graves’ disease as well as disease flare-ups. Encourage the person to work with a mental health professional to come up with a plan for managing stress to manage and prevent flare-ups.
  • Suggest the person seek the help of a mental health professional who specializes in stress management and has experience working with people suffering from chronic disease.
  • Sit down with your family member and make a list of day-to-day stressors and possible ways to alleviate some of the stress. For example, if washing the dishes stresses out your family member because of hand tremors you should offer to take over that task.

 

Encourage the family member to get help if they are experiencing depression or anxiety. The psychiatric manifestations of Graves’ disease can be severe. Oftentimes patients need psychological and/or psychiatric help as they navigate these symptoms. Urge them to make an appointment with a mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • Encourage the person to contact their health insurance company to find out what mental health services are covered by their insurance plan.
  • Try saying, “Jean, you’ve seemed a little down lately. When I was going through a rough patch I saw a psychiatrist who helped me manage my depression and anxiety. Have you thought about going to talk to someone?”

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