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 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)

 

The Mental Torture of Medical Waiting Lists (& How I Learned to Cope)

The Mental Torture of Medical Waiting ListsWaiting.  Before this past year, I would have described waiting as boring, frustrating and draining.  Then I spent 12 months in pain, waiting for a specialist appointment, waiting for tests, and waiting for surgery.  After all that, I’m still waiting for an answer and a solution to my symptoms.  Now I would describe waiting as suffocating, crazy-making and excruciating.  Waiting can become a form of mental torture when your health, daily functioning and quality of life are at the mercy of hospital bureaucrats.

Exactly one year ago this month, I went to my family doctor because of an increase in pelvic pain.  Not only were my periods more painful, but I was experiencing debilitating cramp-like pain more days of the month then not.  My family doctor referred me to my OB-GYN for consultation at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.  I had to wait three months just for an appointment date.  Then, the appointment was rescheduled twice. The office assistant would not call me back, even to give me a rough estimate for when a makeup appointment might be rescheduled.  At one point I even broke down on the phone while leaving a message for the admin assistant. More than anything else, I felt helpless in the face of this mysterious pain that was making my day-to-day life so difficult, with no ability to control the outcome.

Finally, 5 months after the initial referral, I saw the specialist.  We decided a laparoscopy was the best course of action for diagnosis and treatment of suspected endometriosis.  Her assistant told me to call back in two months in order to book a surgery date.  When I called, she told me to call back in another two months.  I called back and left a message.  No reply.  Two weeks later, another message.  No reply.  During this time my pain had spiked significantly and was now difficult to manage, even with multiple pain medications.

I felt trapped.  If I tried to see a different doctor, it would take months for an initial appointment.  If I tried to even make an appointment with the same doctor, prior to the surgery, it would take months.  The pain was making it difficult to socialize, to accomplish day to day activities, to exercise, or to even go on a date with my husband.  I felt angry and anxious.  My mental health was deteriorating.

I’m not alone in this experience. Researchers have found the waiting period can significantly impact the health of patients.  Studies have consistently found negative effects in patients waiting for test results, ranging from adverse effects on recovery times, wound healing times, reduced immune defences, and worsening of side effects from medications.  Researchers hypothesize that these effects may be due to anxiety over test results, which is supported by the finding that waiting patients have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Similar impacts have been seen in chronic pain patients waiting for treatment. The study concluded that waiting for longer than six months caused a reduction in quality of life and psychological wellbeing.

Finally, finally, I got the date for the surgery, two weeks beforehand.  It went smoothly enough.  They found and removed endometriosis lesions.  I struggled through the initial recovery.  One week later, the pelvic pain came back.  Same place, same feeling, same pattern.  Perhaps it is part of recovery, or perhaps the surgery wasn’t the solution.  Now, I have to make another appointment and – you guessed it –wait.

How you react to the stress of waiting for diagnosis or a test result may be partly determined by your personality characteristics.  One study found that a high need for closure -something I can definitely relate to- increases anxiety during the waiting period.  In contrast, if you have a high tolerance for uncertainty, you’re less likely to be anxious.  Do you tend to assume the worst?  This characteristic, which researchers called “defensive pessimism,” also increased waiting anxiety.  If you tend to assume things will work out (“dispositional optimism”), then you are less likely to experience anxiety. Constantly ruminating on the outcome of the test result during the waiting period also increases anxiety.

Interrupt the Flow of Negative Self-Talk

So what can you do you if you have certain characteristics that may increase your stress levels during a waiting period for a diagnosis, procedure or test result?  Firstly, I learned that it is important to interrupt constantly ruminating on the upcoming medical appointment. Try to be aware of your thought patterns and self-talk during this stressful period.  I try to regularly check-in with myself during the day.  If you notice that you are dwelling on the frustration of waiting, acknowledge it.  Then make a deliberate choice to return yourself to the present.  A few minutes of deep breathing or meditation may help to relax you and create space between you and these stressful thoughts.

Distract Your Mind (or, Your new excuse for binge-watching Netflix)

Distraction is another valuable tool.  Decide to focus on something that will occupy your mind rather than ruminating on a positive test result or unwelcome diagnosis.  This might be a good time to re- watch your favorite comedies, because who doesn’t need a good laugh?

Challenge Self-Judgement

When I find myself thinking about how long I have to wait for my next doctor’s appointment, or my frustration at the lack of answers, I find it really helpful to say to myself “OK, here are those thoughts again”.  I’m trying to be accepting of these thoughts, because it’s only natural to be frustrated and stressed in this situation.  But if there’s nothing I can do about it here and now, then I try to refocus my attention on whatever I have going on in the moment.

It’s a daily struggle to cope with the mental torture of the medical waiting list. Negative emotions are natural and experiencing them is not a failure to manage your feelings. That’s a lesson I keep re-learning. I try to see it as a question of what is the most helpful response to the negative emotions, rather than getting frustrated with myself for feeling down in the first place.

Self-Care, Self-Care, Self-Care

It’s very important to practice self-care and stress management during this time.  Activities that have been proven to reduce anxiety include yoga, exercise, meditation, guided visualization, walking in nature, journaling and deep breathing.  Personally I find regular meditation really helpful for my mental sanity.  During this time, it’s helpful to refocus on the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle, like trying to get enough sleep, eating nutritious food and connecting with your social support system.

Here are few resources for staying present and de-stressing:

References:

Hoffman, J. (2012). The anxiety of waiting for test results. New York Times. Retrieved 10 Feb. 2017 from https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/the-anxiety-of-waiting-for-test-results/

Lynch, M. et al. (2008). A systematic review of the effect of waiting for treatment for chronic pain. PAIN 136(1-2): 97-116. Retrieved 10 Feb. 2017 from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304395907003442.

Markman, A. (2014). Waiting is the hardest part, but you can make it easier. Psych Today. Retrieved 10 Feb. 2017 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201407/the-waiting-is-the-hardest-part-you-can-make-it-easier