Think back to the last time you broke a bone or had a wicked case of the flu. If someone asked you, “How are you feeling?” you probably fought back the urge to clobber them with a stick. When your physical body feels lousy, it darkens your entire mood.
People with chronic pain often feel the way you do on your worst pain day — only it rarely subsides. Some days are better than others, but think how you’d feel walking around with a nail in your skull or a red-hot poker in your back. It makes smiling a challenge — but you can find happiness and peace. Here’s how I do so:
1. I Stopped Blaming Myself
Is there anything like the guilt chronic illness or pain makes you feel? You can make a convenient excuse to miss the wedding of your second cousin whom you haven’t seen in a decade or more. It’s more challenging to keep canceling on close family and friends, but they deserve an explanation of why you’re skipping happy hour again.
As much as we want to keep our conditions private, circumstances demand that we reveal our struggles repeatedly. Unfortunately, in a society that values worth based on what you can do, these admittances can lead to some negative consequences, like lost jobs and friendships. I have experienced this myself, and it felt devastating at first. It increased my feelings of worthlessness and guilt. While it was challenging, I learned to shrug off the weight of outside judgments and be true to myself. I am actually glad now that I did. You’ll learn that the people and things that are truly meant to be in your life will follow.
2. I Embraced the Love of New Friends
Because of my limitations, I lost many friends at the beginning of my chronic pain journey. However, I was blessed to find an online community of people with similar challenges, who became my new social circle. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to attend a dinner party where no one questions why you can’t have gluten or carbs or whatever food causes you unpleasant symptoms.
If you feel abandoned by your friend group, the wisest thing you can do is join support groups for people with your condition. The camaraderie you find is invaluable.
3. I Started Practicing Gratitude
Even on your worst day, you can find some reason to say, “Thank you.” Some days are, admittedly, harder than others. One practice I find invaluable is starting each day with a gratitude meditation. It doesn’t matter if you breathe deeply while you reflect on your blessings or write them down in a journal. Whichever method you choose creates the ideal mindset for a better day going forward.
Self-reflection and gratitude can also stop the negative thought spirals those with chronic pain often experience. If your boss calls you in and unexpectedly lets you go, you might justifiably panic, especially if your job represents one of the few activities you can do. You can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair — will mounting bills result in homelessness? Pausing to count your blessings can interrupt the franticness you feel and give your mind time to relax and make a plan.
4. I Learned the Right Moves
If I could get paid to do yoga all day, every day, I would jump at the offer. I know — if you’re a chronic pain warrior, you’re probably groaning and thinking, “Not this suggestion again.”
I was a reluctant convert myself, but I’m also into experimenting to see what remedies work best. I decided to give my practice two weeks to a month. The aches and pains from my sciatica faded significantly. The best part about yoga is that it gives you a feeling of empowerment — that you can take meaningful action to control your disease instead of letting it run your life.
5. I Fed My Body Right
The right nutrition is vital for everyone, but diet also plays a critical role in managing chronic pain. Some foods can increase inflammation, which plays a role in more disorders than you can count. Mice that eat a diet rich in fructose or sucrose — sugar — showed high levels of inflammatory adipokines and elevated cholesterol and triglycerides.
Fortunately, the right foods can benefit human health significantly. Eating a primarily plant-based diet lowers your chances of developing high blood pressure and heart disease, two risks for those with diabetes. Fruits and vegetables with the brightest hues contain high levels of various phytonutrients. I don’t pretend to understand what every one of them does, but I do know eating a vivid salad makes me feel better.
6. I Started Getting Enough Sleep
People with chronic pain often need more sleep than they get. If you have a condition like fibromyalgia that causes widespread achiness, it can prove impossible to find a comfortable position. You need to get your Zzz’s to feel better. Many bodily processes take place while you slumber, and sleep deprivation can leave you feeling lousy mentally and physically.
Talk to your doctor about potential avenues toward getting the rest you need. Many pain medications include drowsiness as a side effect. Nature is the best healer, but you may have to give her time to work while you rest. Explore your options with an expert.
7. I Fell in Love with Mindfulness Body Scans
If you had told me a year or two ago that I could ease head pain by focusing my attention and breathing, I probably would have told you where to go. Scratch that, I would have sent you GPS coordinates on how to get there. I understand that many readers may find the idea crazy, but mindfulness body scans do help.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Scientific evidence indicates that mindfulness meditation-based interventions improve pain symptoms across a vast range of disorders, from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) to migraines. The best part? This practice is free, and a quick YouTube search can get you started in the privacy of your living room.
8. I Took Comfort in Helping Others
If you are a chronic pain warrior, you have probably survived things that would leave many mere mortals sobbing in a corner. What can you do with that newfound strength? Put it to work helping others. Volunteering increases levels of the hormone oxytocin, which increases feelings of well-being. You genuinely get out more than you put in when you perform acts of kindness.
It doesn’t matter if you decide to walk dogs for a local shelter or write letters to political leaders to demand health care reform. Doing something to benefit other people will take your mind off your sorrows and leave you feeling better.
You Can Find Happiness and Peace When Living with Chronic Pain
You can find happiness and peace, even when you live with chronic pain. Try incorporating the a few new practices into your routine and see how you feel.
Mia Barnes is a health and wellness journalist with a focus on mental health and chronic pain issues. She is the Editor in Chief at Body+Mind.
Image courtesy of Kawin Harasai.