Distract Your Pain Away: How to Make the Most of Your Time at Home with Chronic Illness

Distract Your Pain Away:

Living with daily pain can feel very limiting. The list of activities I can no longer do without increasing my pain levels or triggering flare-ups, which includes working, typing, holding a book, vacuuming, running, painting, and everything in between, is longer than the list of what I can do.  It can feel like a cage that that I’m confined to.

In this situation, I found it liberating to discover new activities that I can do even while I am still in pain. In fact, distraction is a valid pain management tool. A recent study found that “mental distractions actually inhibit the response to incoming pain signals at the earliest stage of central pain processing” (Science Daily). In the study, participants either completed an easy or difficult memory task while painful heat was applied to their arms. Participants who completed the most difficult memory test, which was more mentally distracting, perceived less pain– a functional MRI scan of their spinal cord actually showed less nerve activity compared to the group doing the easy memory task. The researchers concluded that these results show “just how deeply mental processes can go in altering the experience of pain” (Science Daily).

This study shows the importance of finding low-key activities that you can enjoy even while you are in pain. Over the past few years, I have discovered a number of different activities that have helped me to expand my horizons, and manage my pain using distraction. I hope that you find some of these (free!) suggestions useful for making the most of your time, even if you are in pain.

Tune Out

Music is a powerful tool for managing pain and depression. Researchers recently found that listening to music for an hour a day reduced chronic pain by up to 21% and depression by 25%! (Science Daily, Listening to Music). Importantly, participants in the study reported feeling more in control of their condition and less disabled by it.

Personally, when I am feeling more alert I listen to my favourite albums and when I’m feeling fatigued, I relax to music specifically designed to help people fall asleep (I simply search for ‘deep sleep music’ in YouTube). If you want to discover new artists, or enjoy music without the cost of buying new albums, you might want to try free music streaming apps and websites, like the free Spotify plan, Google Play Radio or iTunes Radio. These sites let you legally listen to music without a paid subscription. I also like Jango, which has custom radio stations you can stream based on artists that you like (and promises only one audio ad per day).

Learn Something New

Can we be honest about something for a minute? I’m a complete nerd. But I’ve also discovered that most people have at least one topic that makes them geek out! Learning is good for brain health and it can also boost feelings of well-being and self-esteem.

There are many ways to learn new things from the comfort of your home. One of the most rewarding options that I have found is to watch free online video courses from sites like Open Learn, edX, Coursera. Whether you are interested in art or archaeology, math or music, there are thousands of options to explore. Sites like Open Culture provide listings that link to hundreds of courses so that you can choose what interests you most.

I recently discovered the world of podcasts, which has quickly become a staple activity that I turn to on high-pain days. The great part about audio is that you can lie down and rest in the most comfortable position you can find while you learn. The variety of podcasts out there is almost overwhelming, and there really is something for everyone, whether you are a news junkie, sports fanatic, gossip addict, policy wonk or anything else!

Transport Yourself to Another World

Who doesn’t love a good story? Nobody, that’s who! Books, TV shows and movies are all obvious forms of distraction for people living with chronic pain. While you probably already have thought of these options, I want to share a few tips from my own experience that may give you some new ideas to try.

Actually reading a book may be a challenge, depending on your chronic pain condition. Whether physically holding the book is painful, or reading the words on the page causes fatigue or headache, a paperback may not always be practical. Enter the amazing world of audiobooks! A great performance by a talented narrator can really bring a book to life. Lying down and getting carried away in a new story is one of the best low-key activities I have found.

Your local library may have an online audiobook library where you can temporarily download free audiobooks from a digital content service, without having to check them out from a local branch. LibriVoxi s a free, legal, online audiobook streaming service with hundreds of classic books (no longer copyrighted), read by volunteers. Audible and similar companies sell audiobooks from their large online libraries, which you can download or play using their app (but these subscriptions are pricey).

Binge-watching is a tried-and-true method for getting through a bad pain episode. Many people with chronic pain literally ‘Netflix and chill’! Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know about Netflix and all the other streaming services. However, like audiobooks, these services can get expensive. Did you know that there are a number of free (legal) streaming services like Popcornflix that offer public domain films (classics), independent and foreign films, and even recent features, as well as a number of documentaries?  Sites like Pluto TV also offer an array of live tv options. My public library has a partnership with Kanopy, which offers 8 free videos per month of everything from Great Courses lectures to Oscar nominated films. Your library may offer a similar service!


Science Daily (Pain relief through distraction: It’s not all in your head)

Science Daily (Listening To Music Can Reduce Chronic Pain And Depression By Up To A Quarter)



7 thoughts on “Distract Your Pain Away: How to Make the Most of Your Time at Home with Chronic Illness

    • Katarina Zulak says:

      I’m really glad you found it helpful. It took me a long time to find ways to spend time I found enjoyable. It’s not easy, so I thought passing on some of what I’ve found might be useful. Hopefully you find those things too!

  1. Invisibly Me says:

    Distractions and routines have become so, so important for me, too. I find joy in comfort but sadly little else. I was told the other week after an appointment that I have depression again and that’s why I’m not doing the things I used to, with no desire to do them and with no joy from doing them anyway. I’m not too sure how to overcome that. But, I would like to get back into listening to music at least. I used to love music and it would be on from the moment I woke up. Now it’s just for a few minutes whenever I’m driving in the car. Reading is something I can find joy in though and it works as a good distraction from pain, even if briefly. Plus I can do it lying down as I’m bed-bound a lot of the day so that works well. Thanks for this, I know I need to make an effort with a few more things to see if I can find a little enjoyment because the distractions are always welcome.

    Caz xx

    • Katarina Zulak says:

      Hey Caz, I also find it’s sometimes hard to stay interested or motivated, especially when illness symptoms are so limiting. I’ve definitely wondered what the point of trying new things is when depression is hovering around. I’m sorry it’s landed in in your life at the moment. Music is soothing in almost any mood. I find learning something interesting makes me feel like I’m making more of the time on the couch than binge watching… although that has a place too. It feels more “productive” somehow or worthwhile. Hopefully you find some things that give you a few extra moments of enjoyment each day, and can build from there. Xx Katie

  2. Lori Anthony says:

    Thanks for the specific sites and activities you listed!! Distractions like watching tv while I lie on heat pads help when I am in “extra” pain, as I call the unbearable pain. Reading helps and I am discovering the world of podcasts. Thank you!!

    • Katarina Zulak says:

      Glad it had some helpful suggestions. I do the same with lying on heating pads and listening to tv or audiobook/podcasts for distractions. Hope it is at least interesting or entertaining for the part of your mind that can listen. Take good care of yourself 💜

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