Getting the Picture Across: Improve How You Talk About, and Think About, Chronic Pain Using Insights From Art Therapy

Talking pain is hard (a number out of 10 doesn’t really say much!) Learn how to harness the power of images to communicate about your pain more effectively, to reduce pain through visualization strategies, and to express yourself emotionally and intuitively about the experience of living with pain using art therapy insights.

Getting the Picture Across: Let's Talk About How We Talk (and Think) About Chronic Pain

Its almost funny that the single word pain is supposed to mean all of the different sensations you feel when you live with a chronic pain condition. The numbering system out of 10 doesn’t capture chronic pain very well. Are we adding all the pains up and finding an average, or talking about one painful area at a time?. Beyond the intensity of pain, what about the quality of the pain? Often, I find it hard to describe in words how different ‘pains’ physically feel, especially to someone who does not have chronic pain. Sometimes a metaphorical image captures it best.

Images can elicit a very physical response, bypassing the analytical parts of your brain. If I describe the sensation of a dentist drill, whirring away, drilling a hole deep into my spinal column, how do you feel? In contrast, imagine I describe being in a forest, with sunshine streaming through the leaves and dappling the forest floor – do you feel more relaxed? That’s the power of our imagination to affect thoughts and feelings.

Visual Metaphors Can Improve Communication By Evoking Empathy Mirror Neurons

Visual metaphors are better able to evoke understanding and empathy in others than other means of communicating (G. D. Schott). If I tell you about a large needle being slowly inserted into my eyeball, your reaction is likely to cringe, grimace and/or squint your eyes.

When you hear someone describe an image of something happening to them, your brain will “mirror” that experience – you imagine what it would literally feel like for the same thing to happen to you. In fact, we have neural pathways, called mirror neurons, devoted to empathizing with other people this way: “both mirror neuron and alternative neural networks are likely to be enlisted in the empathetic response to images of pain” (G. D. Schott). Using visual metaphors can help you to describe your pain better to your doctors and your family and friends. Here are some common images and metaphors for chronic pain to consider using.

Nerve pain brings to mind intensity, heat and electricity. My sciatic pain can feel like a zap of electricity – a sudden, searing, mini-bolt of lightning. Pain is often compared to a burning or searing fire. Describing a sharp stabbing feeling, like a hot knife, can really help to get the picture of how your pain feels across.

Muscle pain might be best described as a tool-kit wielded by a sadistic handyman. The drilling in my head referred from spasmed neck muscles, the throbbing ache in my SI joint like a hammer pounding down on the spot. It’s also common to describe pain as a tormenting animal, clawing, tugging or squeezing the painful area of the body.

Deep, internal pain can feel like the pressure of a bowling ball, or worse, an anvil, suddenly teleported pressing down on the painful area. Some tools from the sadist’s toolkit might join the party, like pliers pinching or an ache that feels like a vice grip being tightened.

Take a deep breath after reading those descriptions. They can be stressful to contemplate, because it may bring to mind all the different pains you feel at once, and/or activate your mirror neurons so that you’re imagining many types of pain at once. Luckily, the power of visualization can be used not just to describe pain, but to reduce it as well.

Use The Power Of Your Imagination To Manage Your Pain

Visualizing can be a potent way to ease pain and shift attention. Imagining a soothing, or more positive mental picture can significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When you enter a relaxed state, your brain releases endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving biochemicals. Using your imagination is a helpful way to distract from focusing on pain, which is likely another reason that visualization can help to manage pain. Numerous studies have demonstrated that guided imagery reduces pain and improve physical function.

Guided imagery often involves visualizing tranquil natural settings, like walking on the beach or in a garden. The visualization should incorporate all of your sense. For example, a beach visualization would include the mental image of a beach, but also the sound of the surf and the cry of seagulls, the smell of salt air, the feeling of sand under your feet – you get the idea. There are many websites, CDs and apps that provide sessions you can listen to if you’re interested in using this technique.

Another technique involves reframing your original visual pain metaphor or replacing it with a pain reduction visual metaphor. For example, if you feel like your pain sensation is like being pricked by hot needle, then you reframe visual to be a cold needle. After concentrating on that, you can imagine the needle itself becoming soft, like a string of spaghetti.

Guided visualization to soothe pain involves minimizing, distancing or numbing the pain sensation. You can imagine the warm oil being poured over tight muscles, for example, or ice freezing out burning sensations. The secret to success with any visualization technique is practice and repetition – it becomes more effective the more you do it.

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words: Express Yourself Using Art Therapy

Envisioning pain can also go past physical sensations into describing how the pain impacts your life. If I was going to draw a picture of my fibromyalgia, it would be like a cage. I often feel trapped within limitations of what I’m able to do for the pain flares and I have to stop. Chronic pain can feel like an alarm that is always blaring – like trying to work through a fire drill. I would probably use colours like red and orange or grey and black to describe The ‘feel’ of pain.

Not surprisingly, exercises that get you to draw your pain/health condition are also helpful to relieve stress. “Expressing oneself through [art] makes our thoughts, feelings and ideas tangible and communicates what we sometimes cannot see through words alone” (Psychology Today). Creative expression is quite healing, even if it’s limited to abstract doodles or colourings. Drawings and collages can also picture positive images that evoke well-being.

What is a visual metaphor for your pain? If you had to draw an image of your chronic pain condition, what would it look like?

Resources

Psychology Today (Picture Of Health: An Art Therapy Guide) https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/arts-and-health/201703/drawing-picture-health-art-therapy-guide

Arthritis (Guided Imagery For Arthritis) https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/treatment/complementary-therapies/natural-therapies/guided-imagery-for-arthritis-pain

Calgary Neuropathy Association (Visualization And Pain Management For Neuropathy) https://calgaryneuropathy.com/visualization-pain-management/

Brain (G. D. Schott: Pictures Of Pain And Their Contribution To The Neuroscience Of Empathy) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408436/

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Collective Chronic Wisdom: My 5 Favorite Spring Posts by Chronic Illness Bloggers on Finding Hope During Difficult Days

 

Collective Chronic Wisdon

The world seems upside down at the moment, and the headlines are truly overwhelming, full of the pain and suffering experienced by so many as a result of the pandemic and systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Yet daily life goes on, and we still need to care for our bodies and our minds, while managing chronic illness in the time of covid-19.  I feel exhausted and stressed, and have been recently neglecting self-care and it’s deeper companion, self-compassion. So I decided to turn to the collective wisdom of my fellow chronic illness bloggers. I’m sharing a few of my favourite recent posts on the realities of daily life with chronic conditions during times of uncertainty, and helpful perspectives on how to find beauty and hope during difficult days.

Not Just Tired

More Than Just a Hashtag

For the past year, I’ve really enjoyed participating in the #joyinspring photography hashtag started by @Not_Just_Tired on twitter. I really enjoy sharing photos of gorgeous spring blooms, and learning what kind they are, by posting using the hashtag. Looking at the lovely images posted by others is always a pleasure, especially when so much of social media is full of difficult and painful news. It’s encouraged me to be mindful on my walks, and to really savour the beauty around me – basically, to stop and smell the roses (#sorrynotsorry). Here, she shares the impact of creating this hashtag, as well as her daily gratitude #mydailythankyou posts.

Blatherings with Terry

Finding Calm During Times of Uneasiness

We may not be in control of what happens outside of our quarantined zones, we can control our thoughts and how we cope. We can choose calm over chaos and fear…These seven-ish behaviors, practices, factors in my life, absolutely help keep me together. Well, quasi together. Ok, as “together” as I’m probably going to be! (lol + acceptance of my here and now)

My Medical Musings

Living A “Simply Special” Life, Despite Chronic Illness, Despite COVID-19

Instead of fighting to hold onto my old life, I’m using my limited energy, my talents and anything I can muster, to carve a new manageable lifestyle. It’s unique to my needs but it’s perfectly formed.

My failing body can dictate a lot in terms of limiting physical activities but it doesn’t have to dictate my happiness.

Brain Lesion and Me

A Not So Very Normal Life:

When living with a chronic illness, the unusual and disabling symptoms that we experience slowly becomes the norm and part of our daily lives. Life with chronic illness becomes the new normal. Often, it becomes such a part of every day that we can no longer remember life before illness suddenly entered our lives. Nor can we remember what it was not to endure such unyielding and debilitating symptoms.

The Winding Willows

The Key to Happiness Can Be Found in the Dirt

Have you ever planted a seed and watched in germinate then grow and bloom into a beautiful plant? Because there is so much hope for the future when you’re watching the transformative process of a plant growing.

I’ve been growing veggie seedlings in the past few weeks, and seeing the bright green sprouts grow after nurturing them with the best sunlight window positioning, carefully chosen seed starting potting soil, a watering regimen, and too much research has been incredibly rewarding. Especially since the entire world seems upside down.

 

From Pain to Painless: Resonant Botanicals Lotions Review

Resonant Botanicals Review

I’m excited to share my experiences trying Resonant Botanicals pain relief lotions, including Painless X, Neuro-Soothe and Calm Day,  which they were kind enough to provide free samples of for this product review. I’m even more excited to announce my first giveaway! Read on to find out how you can enter.

Although the products were a gift, all opinions in this review are my own, and I was in no way influenced by the company. This post contains affiliate links which help support the blog. 

As it happened, I was experiencing a severe muscle spasm on the day that the Resonant Botanicals creams were delivered (a crick in my neck, caused by an irritated radial nerve, which made the muscles in my neck and upper back seize up). Since I was in a lot of pain, I decided it was a prime time to try Painless X.

Applying Resonant Botanicals Lotions

When I pumped the lotion into my hand, the first thing I noticed was the lovely citrus-herb scent, which reminded me of key-lime pie. The scent is subtle and doesn’t linger, unlike Bengay, and other menthol based products. I found the process of applying the cream relaxing, with the scent itself acting like aromatherapy. Not surprisingly, the ingredients in Resonant Botanicals creams include essential oils, and terpenes – plant-based aromatic compounds, which are used in aromatherapy, and have been shown to boost health and well-being by exerting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

As I massaged it onto my shoulder, the Painless X cream rubbed in completely, without leaving a greasy residue. It felt more like a quality moisturizer than the usual topical pain cream. When I read the ingredients, I realized the difference is because the lotion contains jojoba oil, Evening Primrose oil, and Sea Buckthorn oil.

Massaging the cream on the places where I feel sore has become a relaxing part of my morning and bedtime routine. None of the Resonant Botanicals creams cause a burning, stinging or tingling sensation like Tiger Balm, capsaicin, Bio Freeze or A535. I also like the the lotions are cruelty-free, paraben free, non-gmo and silicone free!

How Effective are Resonant Botanicals Pain Relief Creams?

After I applied the Painless X cream, I went back to watching my TV show. When it ended, I was surprised to realize that I’d actually forgotten about my shoulder pain, because it wasn’t constantly intruding into my awareness anymore. That’s ultimately how I felt about both the Painless X and Neuro-Soothe products – that they dial down the pain intensity so that I can focus on other things.

Painless X Review

I found the Painless X most effective for muscle aches, such as the hard block of knots in my upper back. It typically reduced the pain from a 6/10 to a 2/10, and lasted for 3-4 hours. Painless-X includes potent natural pain relievers like hemp oil extract (the highest concentration offered by Resident Botanicals of 52.5 mg/oz of CBD), which research has demonstrated is effective for reducing chronic pain. Painless X also includes Arnica extract, MSM and magnesium, which are also natural painkillers. The cream provided significant pain relief and I’ve enthusiastically incorporated it into my daily pain management regimen. Of course, it didn’t act as a total cure – so if I immediately started typing or cutting veggies,  pain and muscle spasm would flare – however, if you have chronic pain, having a reliable source of relief is invaluable.

Neuro-Soothe

The Neuro-Soothe lotion helped with tenderness and tension in locations like my glute muscles, caused by my sciatic nerve pain, or wrist pain caused by radial nerve irritation. I also found it effective for temporary strains and pains, like the morning I woke up with elbow tendinitis after sleeping in an awkward position the previous night. The pain relieving ingredients in Neuro-Soothe include anti-inflammatories like hemp oil extract (37.5 mg/oz of CBD), ginger root powder, white willow bark extract, and magnesium chloride.

Deeper pains that originate in my spine, such as deep abdominal/pelvic neuropathic pain, were not reduced as much as surface muscular pain, but that makes sense because these are topical products. Even in the cases of deeper level nerve pain, Neuro-Soothe helped to relieve the surrounding muscle spasms.

Calm Day Review

Lately, like many others, I’ve been feeling quite stressed and anxious about the daily news headlines, so I find the Calm Day quite helpful. It helps take the edge off about 20-30 minutes later by promoting a relaxed mental state. In addition to essential oils, and a low concentration of hemp oil extract, Calm Day also includes the de-stressing herbs Ashwaganda, lemon balm, passionflower and St. John’s wort. I have also found it useful to apply Calm Day in the middle of the night when my insomnia is acting up. I either apply it where I am sore, or use it on my hands and feet.

Interestingly, I also felt mellow and almost drowsy about half an hour after applying Painless X and Neuro-Soothe, with the stronger hemp extracts concentrations intensifying this effect. This was quite helpful with relaxing before bedtime, so I usually prefer to use the Painless X then, and the Neuro-Soothe in the morning.

If you are interested in trying Resonant Botanicals pain relief lotions, please click here.

Giveaway!

I’m really excited to be doing my first giveaway! The first prize will include all three lotions – Painless X, Neuro-Soothe, and Calm Day – in the largest bottles,  8 oz , worth a total of $205! The 2nd, 3rd and 4th prize will include one large 8 oz size bottle of either Painless X, Neuro-Soothe, or Calm Day.

Update: Congrats to Kyrie, Janice, Kim and Sara on winning the giveaway prizes!

 

 

 

Flower Power: Looking At These Pictures Will Reduce Your Anxiety Right Now

The power of flowers: did you know that just looking at images of nature is enough to reduce your stress and anxiety? A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that just five minutes spent gazing at natural photos promotes relaxation and recovery after experiencing a stressful period. Who doesn’t need some of that right now?!

If you weren’t able to get outside into nature during the last few days, then I hope these photos bring nature to you! Flowers offer hope and joy, which is so important during the specific stressors of the global pandemic on those of us living with chronic illness. And the power of flowers means that savoring their beauty helps to improve our well-being.

Apple Blossoms

Magnolia Blossoms

Blue Phlox

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Does anyone know what these gorgeous blooms are?

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Daffodils

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Crocuses

Empowering People Living With Chronic Pain Through Pain-Neuroscience Education

I’m excited to share a guest post by Ann-Marie D’Arcy-Sharpe, a freelance writer and blogger who lives with chronic pain. She writes for Pathways Pain Relief, a chronic pain relief app and blog, which is created by pain patients and backed by the latest pain science. I definitely learned a new thing or two by reading her article, so I hope you do too! 

Empowering People Living With Chronic Pain Through Pain-Neuroscience Education

Chronic pain affects a vast proportion of the population. A 2019 study from the Journal of Pain states that, “Chronic musculoskeletal pain (CMP) affects about 20% of the population in western countries, causing suffering, disability, and a significant loss of quality of life”. Not only does chronic pain affect many people’s lives, it also takes up a great deal of health resources and accounts for many people being out of work. 

For a long time, those with chronic pain have received little in the way of effective treatment options. Thankfully, the face of modern day pain treatment is changing. Pain-neuroscience education (PNE) has become a cornerstone of chronic pain treatment. Understanding the science of chronic pain can be a powerful tool to empower people in pain to retrain their brain away from pain. Having people living with chronic pain understand that the brain produces all pain, and that it’s neuroplastic, helps to instil the confidence that pain is changeable.

PNE is often part of chronic pain treatments such as physiotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)  and other psychological treatments. This form of education teaches those in pain about the science of acute and chronic pain, so they can have a clearer understanding of pain moving forward. Often metaphors and stories are used to help people in chronic pain relate the science to their own lives and provide a deeper understanding. 

This study explains that PNE, “incorporates the multidimensionality of a pain experience and helps patients reconceptualise pain through understanding the multiple neurophysiological, neurobiological, sociological and physical components that may be involved in their individual pain experience.”

At Pathways (our pain therapy app), we found the best results by starting our program with PNE. Those in pain often tell us that understanding the science behind their pain was key to their recovery. Understanding that pain doesn’t equal damage, and that our brain and body learns pain, helped them to change their perspective on pain, as well as strategies to deal with it.

A 2019 study on PNE states that, “The use of pain neuroscience education (PNE) has been shown to be effective in reducing pain, improving function and lowering fear and catastrophization.”

The way those living with chronic perceive pain has a significant impact on pain levels. This study clearly states that, “Pain is complex and it is well established that various cognitions and beliefs impact a patient’s overall pain experience”. 

Giving people living with pain hope and the ability to see why and how treatments work can lead to more positive, adaptive perceptions of pain and the pain experience. This in turn reduces symptoms and encourages more adaptive coping strategies. People are far more likely to really engage in their treatment when they have this basis of understanding to work from.

Often people in pain experience deconditioning from lack of activity. This can contribute to pain levels and make daily activities harder. With more positive perceptions of their pain and the understanding that engaging in activity is not going to harm them, people can start to recondition their bodies. As muscles become stronger and the body becomes fitter, pain is reduced. 

Once fear is tackled with knowledge, the stress that accompanies chronic pain can be reduced. This in turn helps to break the stress and pain cycle. Since stress worsens chronic pain, this is actively helping to reduce symptoms and enabling patients to feel more in control of their lives. 

Through PNE people in pain are made aware of the difference between maladaptive and adaptive coping strategies and learn that their behaviours directly influence their symptoms. They can come to understand the need to implement more adaptive behaviours and can feel more motivated to do so. Given that so many people with chronic pain feel powerless, understanding that they have more control over their pain levels than they may have thought can be incredibly liberating.

Giving people a sense of hope that their symptoms can improve is a vital and significant part of pain treatment. It’s so important that PNE is part of pain treatment moving forward to set people living with chronic pain up for success! When there are effective treatments available, nobody should be left in chronic pain without hope. 

References

Galán-Martín, M.A., Montero-Cuadrado, F., Lluch-Girbes, E. et al. Pain neuroscience education and physical exercise for patients with chronic spinal pain in primary healthcare: a randomised trial protocol. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 505 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2889-1

 

Louw, A., Puentedura, E. J., Diener, I., Zimney, K. J., & Cox, T. (2019). Pain neuroscience education: Which pain neuroscience education metaphor worked best?. The South African journal of physiotherapy, 75(1), 1329. https://doi.org/10.4102/sajp.v75i1.1329

 

Adriaan Louw & Emilio J Puentedura, (2014), Therapeutic Neuroscience Education, Pain, Physiotherapy and the Pain Neuromatrix. International Journal of Health Sciences, September 2014, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 33-45. DOI: 10.15640/ijhs.v2n3a4

Bio: I’m Ann-Marie D’Arcy-Sharpe. I am 33 years old and work as a freelance writer and blogger. I live with bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia and arthritis.

I write for Pathways Pain Relief, a chronic pain relief app and blog. The app is created by pain patients and backed by the latest pain science. We use mind body therapies to help pain patients achieve natural, long lasting pain relief.

You can download our app here: https://www.pathways.health/

 

Strength of Surviving: The Importance of Acknowledging Your Own Strength in the Face of Chronic Illness Adversity

Getting through adversity with endurance and determination is a trademark characteristic of every single person living with chronic illness. This is the strength of survivors. The coronavirus pandemic especially hard on those of us who are sick already but I hold on to the fact each of us is stronger and more resilient than we give our selves credit for, and these inner resources will help carry us through this time.But to acknowledge you own strength, you have to know what it really means. Think about it… what does it actually mean to be strong?

What is strength?

Strength is often described in terms of a fight for control – pictured as a physically tough warrior doing battle against the forces of opposition (Kabat-Zinn). In terms of life with chronic illness, being a fighting warrior can mean advocating for better care from your doctors or standing up for yourself to maintain boundaries in a challenging relationship. “I have the inner strength to fight for what I need.” But this metaphor is relatively limited in how it lets us conceptualize our own strength.Strength can also be understood as having the internal resources to cope in difficult situations. A strong person might be described as having the capacity to exercise physical, mental or moral power in challenging circumstances. You might have a strong mind, a strong support network, strong principles, or strong abilities that help you navigate through life experiences. Learning to cultivate and rely on these resources is an aspect of strength that I would call resilience, and it’s an important part of living a better life with chronic illness.Finally, and I think most importantly for individuals with illness, strength is about endurance, tenacity and perseverance – think of the phrase “a pillar of strength”. This is the strength of survivors. Getting through adversity with endurance and determination is a trademark characteristic of every single person living with chronic illness. I love the phrase “remember, your success rate for surviving your worst days so far is 100%”.Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness in medicine, created a meditation based on the visual metaphor of a mountain to help patients in his programs learn how to adopt a mountain’s qualities of strength, stillness and stability as their own. I would include an additional symbol – a tree –which offers additional insights on how we can understand strength as adaptability in a way that helps us cope with chronic illness. What can the metaphors of a mountain and a tree can teach us about the strength of survivors? How can we come to know our own grounded presence, our ability to encounter both good and bad experiences one day at a time, and our own will to survive, uplifted from deep within?

Being Grounded

The base of a mountain is embedded in the Earth’s crust, and the deepest roots of a tree ground it in the soil. In the same way, we can anchor ourselves in the present moment, and root our attention in the here-and-now. This is what it means to be “grounded in awareness”, which is a stable foundation for living that can be very reassuring in the face of overwhelming circumstances.Growing deep roots in the firmament of awareness is a source of great inner strength. If we stay mindfully connected to the present, then we don’t get swept away by memories, imaginings, and other mental or emotional preoccupations. Whenever grief over losses caused by illness arises – or frustration about physical limitations, or anger over inadequate health care – staying grounded in the present, even as you feel your feelings, provides stability, continuity and reliability. You can always count on just this breath, moment to moment, to anchor you. It is sustaining and nourishing for our well-being to be grounded in the present in this way – just like it is nourishing for a tree when its roots absorb water and nutrients from the surrounding soil.Meditation instructors often liken thoughts, feelings, and experiences to the weather. How would you describe the forecast in your own life today? Sunshine and blue sky (happy), overcast (low mood), partly cloudy with sunny breaks (neutral), storm clouds with thunder and lightning (anger), blizzard conditions (turmoil) – using the emotions-as-weather metaphor is a wonderful way to check in with yourself to identify how you’re doing throughout the day. Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that the mountain experiences these conditions on its surface – but underneath, the solid base sits in unwavering stillness. In the same way, beneath the thoughts, emotions and experiences of our daily lives, is the foundation of unwavering stillness that is our awareness. If we can learn to sit mindfully, grounded in the same resolve and endurance as a mountain, no matter what the conditions on the surface landscape of our daily lives might be, we can adopt its strength as our strength.

Being Mode: Equanimity as Strength

A mountain is the quintessential symbol of endurance. The mountain rests in “being mode”– a calm, abiding presence withstanding the inevitability of change over time. A mountain knows at its core, of each experience, that “this too shall pass”. The mountain represents equanimity.Everyday life with illness is extremely unpredictable. Chronic illness exemplifies the saying “man plans, and God laughs.” Physical symptoms constantly fluctuate, which makes planning very difficult. Over time, forced periods of inactivity and rest due to flare-ups make it difficult to continue persevering at things – from friendships, to jobs, or projects. The stop-and-go nature of life with sickness makes it hard to accomplish things or to cultivate relationships, and the constant sense of uncertainty causes a pervasive feeling of powerlessness.The natural reaction to these changeable circumstances is to double down on “doing mode”. For example, you might stay up all night researching your illness, create a 40 item treatment plan, or drive yourself to “push through” tasks regardless of pain or exhaustion, in order to be more productive. “Pushing through” does require strength, but it is the fighting, warrior-type of strength we discussed earlier. This works in short bursts, and can sometimes be necessary, such as pushing through physical discomfort to attend a meaningful family event or to advocate for yourself with a dismissive doctor.But like clenching a handful of sand in a closed fist, these tactics don’t help you hold on to predictability or productivity for very long. We can needlessly expend our limited energy in a constant, exhausting battle to regain control of our day. But, as you likely know all too well, pushing through today usually only leads to a crash tomorrow. What might happen if we switched to approaching life’s challenges using the endurance and tenacity of “being mode” rather than engaging in the battle of “doing mode”?We can use the symbol of the mountain to represent what embodying equanimity as an inner strength could look like. When difficult experiences, thoughts or emotions arise, rather than always seeking to analyze and control these circumstances, we can rely on our inner awareness as a solid foundation – building on the enduring resolve and unwavering stillness of mindful presence to persevere through the storms of life. Releasing the need to control our life circumstances can feel like an enormous weight lifted from our shoulders. Instead, we allow circumstances to be like the weather on the mountain – ever-changing – even while the mountain endures as a still, rock-solid presence. In this way, cultivating equanimity allows us to build inner strength.

Strength in Flexibility

Like a tree, you have shown determination to survive, no matter how challenging the environment has been. You have endured, one day at a time. This inner strength comes from your core, which supports you like the trunk supports a tree.The tree has a powerful lesson about strength to teach us – because it is both strong and flexible. The trunk stands firm, yet the branches bend in the wind. If the wood of trees was unyielding, all trees would be brittle and snap in stormy weather. In fact, the trees that have adapted to survive hurricanes are the most flexible of all – picture a palm tree bending to withstand the onslaught of Category 5 hurricane strength winds one day – and then standing serenely under a tropical sun the next. Flexibility, and adaptability, in the face of adversity, increases resilience. No matter whether we face sunny days or storms, the tree teaches us to stay grounded in the present, to hold ourselves upright using our inner strength, and to be flexible in the face of the winds of change.

When I realized all of the strength I needed was already inside me, it changed how I approached the challenges of illness. Of course I feel anxious and worried; the feelings don’t disappear. But reminding myself to stop, breathe, and plant my feet in the present gives me hope that there is a path through whatever difficulties I face. I can deal with just.right.now. The stillness and stability of just being, of our awareness of each moment, is always there to count on, to ground yourself in. Endurance is made up of perseverance in moments, and days. I’ve gotten through every difficult minute, hour, day, and season I’ve ever faced, and so have you. I don’t know what the future holds, and I try to stay open to change. But I have an approach and a way to navigate what comes, and that is the strength of surviving. I know that now, and it makes all the difference.

to cope with You can find the mountain meditation in any Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, which is taught all over the world, in the book “Wherever You Go There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, or on the free, non-commercial site http://www.freemindfulness.org/download, under ‘Guided Imagery’.

Fear and Hope: The Hidden Realities of Being Chronically Ill In the Time of Coronavirus

 

Right now is especially hard on those of us who are sick already. The safety nets that each person has – medical care, social support, financial security, and access to basic necessities, among others – are being sorely tested at this time. But the individual safety nets of people with chronic illness are already weakened, and when you add a pandemic, they fray even more. We have to hope and pray that they hold.

Spring. It’s a beginning. More than that, it’s a beginning that starts in the cold and the dark. In the middle of winter, it’s hard to believe spring will come. But it does. I’ve taken photos of spring flowers to remind myself of that fact.  I hold on to the fact that the deep resilience and strength that everyone with a chronic illness has developed will help to get us through this time.

Physically, the risk of getting coronavirus has higher stakes for the chronically ill. Even if you are not immunocompromised, the fear of getting a terrible illness flare up, or setback is real. A cold virus once caused me debilitating fatigue for months, so of course I worry what coronavirus could do. My husband worries even more on my behalf than I do!

The financial crisis ahead will disproportionately hurt the chronically ill, who are far more likely to be underemployed or unemployed than the non-ill. I feel lucky my husband’s salary can support both of us, since I can’t work, although things in a single income family are often tight. But for years, many of those with chronic illness have lived in poverty on inadequate government disability assistance. Suddenly, the government has found the resources to give individuals who have just lost been laid off because of covid-19 as much as double the amount allocated for disability benefits. 

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone who has recently gotten emergency government financial assistance due to coronavirus. That’s the right thing for our governments to do, and in fact, they should give more than they are. But when the chronically ill and disabled get half as much on a regular basis – an amount that is below the poverty line- it feels like our governments are saying people like us are worth half as much. Meanwhile, many are still trying to get by on the inadequate amount given as disability assistance during the lockdown without any additional supplementation. 

We’re still living in an ableist world  in the time of coronavirus. There’s no way that I can stand in line for half an hour or longer to buy groceries or pick up prescription refills on my bad knee. But God help you if you want schedule grocery delivery. There are no times available, for love or money. My husband is able to try and shop around his work schedule, and I’m lucky to have that help, when others are on their own. In some cases, neighbours and strangers have stepped up to help out the chronically ill who iive alone, and that increases my faith in humanity a little bit more.

Like so many, all of my appointments and procedures have been cancelled. From monthly physiotherapy that helps to bring down regular flare ups, to a long scheduled nerve ablation that is supposed to reduce my neuropathic back pain, all of these pain management tools are now on hold and I’m trying to make do the best I can.

I won’t lie, it has been harder to sleep, which triggers more flares of pain. I feel more irritable, especially if I spend too much time on the news or social media. Regulating my news diet helps to bring some of the stress down. It’s just not feasible to try to worry about every corner of the world at once!

At the moment, it seems like everyone and their grandmother are having Zoom chats with all the people they’ve ever known. If I read one more post about how wonderful all this reconnecting is I think I will get an eye twitch.

Chronic illness is isolating for most of us. When you cannot regularly meet up with friends or join community events or chit chat with neighbours at the dog park, then your social support system shrinks. I’m fortunate to have a couple of good, old friends who have stuck with me. And since I’m old school, I skype with them on occasion (sorry, zoom!).

But I’ve lost a lot of friends and family members along the way. It’s hard to think about the people who were more fair weather friends at a time like this when we could have been there for each other.

That being said, I’ve learned to embrace solitude more over the years. This is the time for distraction therapy: writing, knitting, painting or whatever creative pursuits you have wanted to try. Or maybe just appreciate the creativity of authors, actors and musicians by reading, watching shows and listening to music that you’ve wanted to check out but haven’t had time until now. Here’s a list of my favourite free distractions to help you make the most of this time, despite the pain and fatigue.

Frustratingly, I had just started going to a local library book club before the pandemic hit and had found a new local fibro group I was hoping to go to. Looking forward to book club got me through some difficult days- thinking, “well, at least I’m living a little”. Same with going out to a cafe once in awhile with an audiobook, ted talk or an online course lecture. Those small things helped me to regulate my feelings about chronic pain- counterweights of connection and enjoyment to the isolation and limitations of illness.

Now though, that’s not possible, or re-creatable. When bad days hit now, it’s hard to know what to turn to other than a lot of distraction. Fortunately, there are some excellent online support groups, like Medical Musings for Friends on Facebook, or the general chatter of #chroniclife #spoonie #chronicpain #fibromyalgia on Twitter.

I hold on to the hope that this season will pass and a new spring will bloom, when we will be able to access the treatments and supports we need again, and build the relationships we want. Now more than ever, I value the strength I’ve gained, my current relationships (IRL and virtual), and mindfulness of simple enjoyments, like spring flowers, that I can savour. I hope I can carry the intention to focus on these things into the next season, post-coronavirus. We have strength forged by surviving our illnesses, and we can trust in our own tenacity and resilience during this time. Self-compassion and kindness can also go a long way right now. We need to give ourselves a break at present, since we’re all just muddling along trying to figure this thing out the best we can, one day  at a time.

 

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!

Resources

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)

 

Coping With Uncertainty: Going Where the Flow of Your Chronic Illness Takes You

Unfortunately, illness takes away much of our control over our own lives. But there is a blueprint for coping with life’s fundamental unpredictability. Putting the anxieties and unknowns of life under the heading ‘Future Events I Cannot Control’ helps to keep me sane, especially in the face of scary symptoms.

Coping With Uncertainty:

Spring lends itself to new beginnings, from planning spring cleaning, to starting up projects, to contemplating healthier choices.

When you live with chronic pain, it’s easy to decide on a new initiative, but difficult to actually accomplish it. The unpredictable and overwhelming nature of fibromyalgia and chronic illness symptoms mean that completing something isn’t only a matter of motivation and effort. Unfortunately, illness takes away much of our control over our own lives. This leads to feeling powerless, which is hard to live with. You have to go with the flow of your illness, wherever it takes you.

It can help to take the long view on the uncertainty of life. As they say, “humans plan, and God laughs.” All people have to contend with the fact that they cannot control the future. This truth may be more visible in the lives of people with chronic illness, but it applies to everyone. Striving and straining to attain the impossible — control of the future– can be an exhausting and defeating waste of mental and emotional effort.

I recently developed a mysterious knee pain, and my knee becomes red and swollen sometimes. This has significantly limited my ability to walk and drive, and do basic daily  activities. While I wait on multiple referrals to specialists, I have to live without knowing whether I will I have to permanently live with this new disability. Unknowns like this are scary, and naturally produce worry and anxiety. At times like this, I come back to the Serenity Prayer: “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can , and the wisdom to know the difference.” Beyond containing a universal truth, I think that this prayer offers a blueprint for coping with life’s fundamental unpredictability.

During a period of heightened uncertainty, it’s useful to mentally review the worries that arise, and divide them into two categories: things you can change, and things you can’t control. For the first category, put the analytical, problem-solving part of your brain to work coming up with strategies and  to-do lists. In the case of my knee, that has included day-to-day coping strategies to make myself more comfortable. For example, I bought a chair for the shower to make washing easier.  I looked up ways to make at-home ice packs using water and rubbing alcohol in Ziploc bags so that I can ice my leg frequently to keep the swelling down. I’ve been keeping careful track of my daily steps so that I don’t go beyond what I can handle. While these proactive steps don’t address the fundamental question about what will happen in the future, they do make me feel more in control of the present. It isn’t easy to do something that makes me feel more disabled than a month ago, like sitting in the shower, but I’m doing what I can, and that feels much better than doing nothing.

So what about the second category — the things we cannot change? Sometimes the simple act of acknowledging  that there are things beyond our control can be a relief. When worry and apprehension take over your mental attention, they’re often based on the assumption that you have the ability to change external circumstances. Setting that burden down can be freeing. Of course this doesn’t mean that you stop caring about outcomes. It’s a fallacy to say that choosing to live in the present without always being preoccupied by future worries means that you don’t care about what will happen.

Putting the anxieties and unknowns of life under the heading ‘Future Events I Cannot Control’ helps to keep me sane, especially in the face of scary symptoms. My Grandmother used to say that “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” The older I get, the more I realize the wisdom of that saying. As mindfulness practitioners like to remind us, we only ever live in the present moment, not in the future, or the past. The visual of a mountain, sitting still and unmoveable in the face of all weather and seasons, is sometimes used in meditation because it captures the spirit of being grounded in the present. There are different practices that can help us to cultivate equanimity in the face of uncertainty, such as mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, or prayer. The gist of these comes down to being self-aware about what we mentally focus on, and deciding whether the issue is something we can change or something we cannot control. We need to do what we can to address the things within our power, and let go or surrender what we cannot (over and over again, sometimes). In the long-term, I don’t know what will happen regarding my knee. Right now, I think I will go get another ice-pack and start thinking about what to make for dinner.

Coping With Uncertainty twitter

Habitually Healthier: How to Actually Stick to New Habits in 2020 to Improve Life With Illness

Managing fibromyalgia involves making multiple lifestyle changes. It’s like having a black belt in New Year’s resolutions. The science of habits can help you actually stick to your resolutions in 2020.

How to Actually Stick to New Habits in 2020 to Improve Life With Illness

Managing fibromyalgia involves making multiple lifestyle changes. I think it is like having a black belt in New Year’s resolutions. In the past six years I have added daily stretching, meditating, walking, resting and supplements to the things I do almost every day. I have found it to be very difficult to stick to making new habits, with lots of false starts and relapses into bad habits.

The intentional mind can change quickly, because what we wanted to do in the past may be different from what we want to do now. The habitual mind is much harder to change because our behaviour is automatic – in fact, we are on autopilot 40% of the time. It is hard to sustain the willpower to change and easy to revert to old habits. However, by understanding the science behind habit formation, it can be much easier to stick to the lifestyle changes that you have decided to make.

When you first try to start a new habit, you engage goal-directed brain regions in the prefrontal cortex. As you repeat your habit in the same context, such as always brushing your teeth in the bathroom before bed, the part of your brain you use to maintain your habit shifts to the ‘sensory motor loop.’ This is the habitual part of the brain that functions mostly outside of our awareness, by associating situational cues with a behaviour response. For example, when you stagger into the kitchen in the morning and make coffee, you are on ‘autopilot,’ and not making a conscious, intentional decision – your brain associates waking up and going to the kitchen with coffee.

Habits can be broken down into three parts:

  1. The Cue – a trigger, internal or external, that reminds you perform an action
  2. The Action – the habit behaviour you are trying to put into place
  3. The Reward – the reward your brain receives for implementing the habit

The Cue – The first step to creating a new habit is often to break the old habit. This means removing a situational cue which triggers the habitual response. When my husband and I decided we would try to walk every day after he got home from work, the first obstacle was to avoid sitting down in front of the TV soon after he came in the door. It was so much harder to get up the motivation to go outside after we had already begun to watch a show, even if initially we said “we’ll only watch one.” So instead, he now immediately gets changed and we head out the door, avoiding the couch altogether. Another helpful tactic is to remove any visual reminders, such as moving junk food to a higher shelf if eating healthier is a habit you’re trying to create. Think about how to remove negative cues that keep you stuck performing a bad habit.

The next part is to choose a positive trigger that will remind you to repeat the new habit you’re trying to cultivate. The most effective way to do this is to use something you do automatically already as your cue. For example, doing yoga after brushing your teeth in the morning. Alternatively, create a visual reminder, such as putting your smoothie blender beside the coffee maker or a note on the bathroom mirror to floss your teeth.

The Routine – put simply, repeating an action turns it into a habit. It only becomes automatic after you do it regularly. One of the biggest mistakes is trying to implement multiple new habits at the same time. I’ve been guilty of trying to make multiple lifestyle changes at the same time in order to improve my fibromyalgia, like taking new supplements, exercising, meditating and resting daily. I think this can just lead to treatment burnout where you lose the motivation to stick with any good habits. It’s also important for new habits to be realistic. You know yourself the best, so start with a realistic change and be patient.

The Reward – there’s a reason that bad habits stick around, and it’s because of the reward system in the brain that lights up when you eat sugar, play online games, or drink a lot of caffeine. While eating healthily or exercising more eventually become their own rewards, it can be helpful to consciously reward yourself when you cultivate new habits. This could be a small piece of dark chocolate, or a mental pat on the back for accomplishing your goal for the day.

Research shows that tracking your habits is one of the most effective means for sticking with a new lifestyle change. This could be a simple checklist on a piece of paper that you mark every day or downloading one of the multiple habit tracking apps onto your phone. Keeping a log of your progress helps to improve motivation, keep you accountable and note any obstacles or solutions to work on. I have found it helpful to just add a new habit to my daily pain journal. At the moment I am tracking my physiotherapy strengthening exercises and daily step count. Filling it out reminds me to keep up with it and also helps me see how it improves my pain levels during the day.

I believe that underneath the trigger and behaviour nature of habit formation is a more crucial factor – namely, your relationship with yourself. How do you respond to yourself when you make a mistake? It’s inevitable when you try to make a new change that there will be days when you fail and forget to do the One thing you swore you would do every day in 2019. If you react harshly, condemning yourself for your mistake and doubling down on negative self-talk, then you are actually less likely to stick to your new habit. This is because of “all or nothing thinking” which goes something like this: if you didn’t meditate one day this week then you consider your New Year’s resolution to be a complete failure and decide that you may as well just give up. In contrast, if you are compassionate to yourself for making a mistake – after all, making mistakes is something every person does – then you are more likely to keep up with your new habit. Be kind to yourself. You can always begin again. Try noting the negative thoughts in your daily log and then reframing them in a more helpful light. For example, “I can’t believe that I didn’t do my physiotherapy exercises this morning, I am never going to get this right, so why even bother?” can be changed to “it’s frustrating that it slipped my mind today, but I know that’s going to happen sometimes. It’s better that I do it more often than never, some I’m just going to begin again tomorrow.”

Sources:

Cooper, B. ‘Why you should be tracking your habits’. Lifehacker (www.lifehacker.com)

Science Daily. ‘How we form habits, change existing ones.’ (www.sciencedaily.com)