11 Ways to Cope With Chronic Pain and/or Chronic Illness
I have lived with chronic illness and chronic pain close to my whole life, and I didn't always cope with it well. It took years of living with the pain to learn to cope with it. At a young age I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, prior to my diagnosis I was constantly sick, and spent more time at the doctors than at school. Once this was under control things got better, temporarily. I can't remember when the GI issues, and constant pain started, but I do know when I was a sophomore in High School I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, IBS, and Endometriosis. This was the same year I acquired a traumatic brain injury, and experienced loss of a friend and a family member. Several years later I was diagnosed with arthritis in my ankles and knees.
As you can imagine with all of these autoimmune and chronic illnesses I have had my fair share of pain, and most days I live with the pain at a 4 (out of 10) and that's a good day. However, many days I hit a 7-10. Those days if I am not working it's hard to get up and move, however most days I am working, and don't work in a position where I can just call out. So how do I manage it? and how can you manage your chronic pain and/or chronic illness?
First thing I had to do was learn mind over matter, and I used to HATE this term, however changing your mindset is so important. I went through the why me, and resenting healthy people, blaming a higher power, depression, anxiety, the full gamete. Thankfully I have a great support system, and I had guidance on the power of the mind. Mindfulness is so important, it's a pretty straight forward concept, it suggests that the mind if fully aware and attentive to what's happening, to what you are doing, how you are feeling in the moment, and how you are going to react. When our mind takes flight and wanders away from us we loose sight of ourselves, we steer off the path that gives out mind the ability to over react, have obsessive thoughts, and thus makes us anxious. In simple terms, mindfulness is the basic ability to stay present of the who, what, why, where, when, and how and gives us the ability to not become overwhelmed, over reactive, or escalated in any way. This becomes a way of living, anyone can practice mindfulness and incorporate into their lives, it's both scientifically and evidence based as having positive benefits for our happiness, relationships, and health.
Following mindfulness is meditation, there are many different ways to meditate, and so many different types of meditation. Often when teaching clients about meditation, the thought is usually "but I can't relax cross legged with my arms up, to foo foo music." This, I understand as it was once my mindset until I became educated on the topic. There are body scan or progressive meditations, zen (zazen) meditation, mindfulness meditations, breath awareness meditation, transcendental meditation, walking meditations, and many more. What are all these words? what do they mean? and how do you know what will work for you?
Body scan or progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that helps aid in muscle relaxation in both clinical and non clinical settings. In focusing on a muscle group or the entire body, going through and feeling the sensations from head to toe in order to release tension and stress. Feeling the weight of your hands, legs, being mindful of your breaths and the group below you, the temperature, and all body sensations, and being able to have that weight lifted off you completely. Zazen (Zen) is a meditative discipline that is typically the primary practice of the Zen Buddhist tradition. This meditation is traditional, it involved the participant observing and letting go of thoughts and feelings that come up in the mind-stream, along with developing insight into the nature of mind and body. Breath awareness, is being able to connect and be mindful of ones breaths, the mindfulness of breathing, which can help regulate heart rate, decrease stress and anxiety. Walking meditations are as they sound, walking and being able to keep your mind free of intrusive thoughts. Paying attention to the steps, your surroundings, your breath, pause and take it all it. This is a brief overview of some of the ways to meditate, and how do you know what will work for you? you don't until you try it, and practice it. In order for something to be a coping skill one should try it 30 to 60 times before ruling it out.
Stress kills. Literally. It also causes increases in symptoms, including pain. So learning to decrease stress is imperative. Negative feelings and a negative mindset, feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and stress can increase your bodies sensitivity to pain. In learning to control and manage your stress you may find relief from your chronic pain. How do you reduce stress? well, you can meditate, listen to claiming music, try practicing breathing techniques, guided imagery meditations, or letting your creative side out be it coloring, painting, writing, or another form of expressive arts.
Release your bodies natural endorphins with exercise, if you are physically able. Endorphins are brain chemicals that help improve mood and block pain signals. Some people are able to get their bodies moving, and others struggle to do so with their chronic illness. Exercise also helps maintain weight, strengthens muscles, and can prevent re-injury for those with a history of past injuries. Ask your medical provider for an exercise routine that is right for you and may work for you.
Your mother always said eat your vegetables, and she was giving you good advice. Your diet can help improve your immune system, your body reacts to an unhealthy diet similarly to how it may try to fight bacteria. Evidence suggests foods rich in a group of antioxidants have an anti-inflammatory effect that helps soothe and prevent painful flare-ups, some of these foods include whole grains, dark leafy vegetables, legumes, and whole fruits and vegetables. I highly suggest meeting a dietitian to discuss your diagnosis and to find out what foods you may benefit from most in order to help you live your best life. The foods we eat can have an influence on our mood, inflammation, sleep, and pain, so why not eat the foods that can heal rather than harm.
Decrease of cut out alcohol from your life. it sounds hard and unmanageable to some, but it is possible and beneficial to your health. Pain can effect sleep, causing insomnia, and alcohol can add to these sleep issues and make them worse. Limiting, decreasing, or cutting out alcohol can help decrease pain and increase sleep. Drinking can worsen nerve damage and nerve pain, especially in the arms and legs. Unfortunately many patients with nerve pain or chronic pain self medicate with substances. Ingesting alcohol over a prolonged amount of time can cause more health issues, from stomach ulcers, pancreatitis, alcoholism, and life-threatening diseases. Smoking can also contribute to increased pain and staying abstinent from smoking is most beneficial to your chronic pain, illness, and overall health.
Develop coping skills that you can utilize in order to help maintain pain, stress, anxiety, and any triggers that may cause these things. Coping skills are skills you use in a situation where you need to talk yourself off that cliff, often times I used to cry for hours until I passed out. Giving myself horrible head aches, and in turn increasing all pain levels throughout my body. Coping skills may look different for everyone, and there is no right or wrong when it comes to healthy coping skills. Some things you may consider to try if you are looking to gain coping skills are talking a walk, artwork, listening to music, yoga, visiting animals at the shelter, playing with your animals/kids, watch a movie, play video games, call a friend, and there are so many more options to help you cope with different situations.
Practicing self care might seem like a no brainer, many of us do what we have to in order to get through the day. It can be hard to put yourself first, and prioritize what is important for your well being. We often get stuck in a rut not thinking we deserve the self care, taking care of others, or simply don't listen to our minds and bodies so we don't give them what they need. It's hard to take care of others if you aren't taking care of yourself. Give yourself time in the morning to shower, brush your teeth, have your tea or coffee, and breathe and be mindful about what you need for you in the day. Self care might include normal daily routines, washing, eating, paying bills, it may also include things such as getting your hair or nails done to maintain your appearance and boost your positive thoughts about yourself, and in turn your confidence. Giving yourself rest if it's what you need, meditating, taking your medications as prescribed, all of these things fall in the realm of self care, and help you be the best version of you. Remember, self care is not selfish, it's necessary in order for you to be able to take care of yourself and others.
Set clear boundaries with employers, employees, family, friends, anyone in your life who you deem it necessary to have a relationship of some sort with. Let them know what you are and aren't capable of. Ask for help if needed, there is no shame in asking for help or needing help. Don't over commit, don't be afraid to say no, and if you need to cancel plans, don't let guilt or shame get in the way. You don't need to explain yourself, you don't need to justify your actions, you just need to advocate for yourself and maintain the boundaries that you set.
Find support in your life, from family, friends, support groups, and/or therapy. Human connection is so important, being able to feel heard, understood, and supported. Chronic pain and chronic illness can feel lonely, depression, and cause people to isolate, especially during flares. Support groups allow you to connect with others who share your experiences. They can help you realize that you are not alone, and let you be heard by others who truly get you and what your going through. Individual therapy can also be beneficial, it gives you an outlet who has no bias who can listen whole heartedly and perhaps even help you learn how to set boundaries, advocate, and create a self care plan and coping skills to implement into your life.
Acceptance. This one can be hard, as we are all diagnosed with chronic pain and chronic illness at different stages in the lifespan. Things you should know, acceptance does not mean that you are giving in or giving up. It does not mean that you can never feel resentment, grief, sadness, or anger - these feelings are valid and normal. It also does not mean giving up hope for the future. Accepting the reality of your condition, the change in lifestyle, and learning to live with it. In accepting your chronic pain or chronic illness you are learning to live again, and you are allowing yourself to live your best possible life, even if it's not how you envisioned it prior to diagnosis. It means advocating for ourselves, to help us live the most healthy lives possible. You may live with your diagnosis, however it does not define you, It is simply another component that makes you who you are.
3. Decrease Stress
6. Decrease or cut out the Alcohol
7. Coping Skills
8. Self Care
9. Maintain Boundaries
10. Find support