Self Care for Chronic Pain and Mental Health
When people think of the term “self care,” the mind conjures up thoughts of an afternoon at the spa, vacationing away from the stresses of life, or even splurging on a meal out. While these can be wonderful ways to treat yourself, for many living with chronic pain self-care is not a luxury, but a part of daily living. Within the chronic illness community self care is viewed as a supportive component of activity pacing, which is explained using “The Spoon Theory”.
At A Healing Place – The Estates, we help our patients understand the importance of self care by breaking it up into four specific life quadrants: Biological, Psychological, Social, and Spiritual. Patients learn to preform “needs assessments” when they feel physically or emotionally overwhelmed and then use the coping skills they learned in our program to appropriately address those needs.
Below are over 20 self care tips to help ease pain and suffering associated with chronic pain.
As people go about their day, they rarely take the time to assess how their interactions or daily activities influence their behavior. You may find yourself getting home from a long day of work, flopping down on your bed and telling yourself “I feel miserable!” While you have every right to feel this way, there are steps you can take steps to prevent yourself from diving into a state of misery. You can do this by developing a greater sense of emotional intelligence through the practice of a daily needs assessment.
- Ground yourself. Preform a breathing exercise to center yourself and clear your mind.
- Ask yourself “am I getting my needs met…”
- Biologically: Am I experiencing pain? If so, what caused this pain? What can I do now to help reduce the pain?
- Psychologically: Why is it I am feeling this way? What could have triggered this emotion? Why am I having this thinking pattern? How can I shift my perspective and change the way I am feeling?
- Socially: Am I feeling isolated? Am I seeking connection? What ways can I connect with others? What can I do to get some social interaction?
- Spiritually: How strong is my connection to my higher power? Do I understand my sense of purpose? What ways can I connect with my higher power?
- Take action. Remember that self care is not selfish! We feel and preform our best when we ensure that our needs are being met.
Biological (Physical) Self Care
Maintaining a proper diet requires dedication, discipline, but most of all: time! Between weekly meal planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning, it becomes very tempting to find short cuts. Boxed meals, microwavable meals, and fast food are always a quick and inexpensive option, but should be used sparingly. These highly processed products can be very difficult to digest and offer very little in terms of nutritional value.
Maintaining a proper diet requires dedication, discipline, but most of all: time! Between weekly meal planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning, people often resort to short cuts. Boxed meals, microwavable meals, and fast food seems like a quick and inexpensive option, but should be used sparingly. These highly processed products can be very difficult to digest and offer very little in terms of nutritional value.
Make time once or twice a week for meal prepping. Break down the process into smaller objectives:
- Spend one night planning your meals around a base ingredient.
- Take time the following day to complete the shopping and prep.
- Wash and cut veggies
- Set out spices and cook ware
- Set our storage containers
- Cook and clean!
- This can be the most exhaustive step. Consider inviting a friend or family member who understands your limitations over to help.
- Store and enjoy throughout the week!
We believe in the value of implementing an anti-inflammatory diet as a self care strategy. Meals consist of limited processed ingredients, plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, nuts and granola, lean meats, with limited dairy, sugar, and gluten products. Many start to see results within the first couple of weeks, stating they have increased energy levels, improved digestion, and decreased gut inflammation.
We all know the value of exercise. If you have been to a pain or mental health specialist, they frequently ask if and how often you exercise. The benefits are clear and understandable (increased energy, reduced inflammation), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement, especially with a chronic pain condition!
Depending on your mobility and chronic condition, you can find micro opportunities to exercise your joints and muscles. Some people make this a part of their routine by always opting for the stairs instead of an elevator. Others do this by intentionally taking multiple trips to and from the car. If you work in an office setting, try setting an hourly timer that reminds you to get up, stretch your legs, or even do a set or two of squats.
If you are looking for something more structured, here are 5 of the best exercises you can do for chronic pain:
1. Walking, 2. Swimming, 3. Yoga, 4. Pilates, and 5. Strength Training. Try to find find a local exercise class that meets your needs. We have found gentle yoga and aquatic exercise to be easily customized (based on one’s limitations) and are low impact exercises. Joining in on group exercise classes helps hold you accountable, and it also serves as an opportunity to get some social interaction!
Handheld massage tools are a great intervention technique to help extinguish pain flair ups. There are a wide variety of these massage tools designed to address pain in specific areas of the body.
- Massage Balls: Suffering from foot or back pain? Massage balls can be placed on the ground to massage the arches of your feet to relieve tension. You can also press the ball between a firm surface and your back to unwind knots that develop throughout the day.
- Back Rollers: Back pain is one of the most common chronic pain conditions reported. If you have a long commute or a desk job, back rollers may be just what you are looking for. These hand-held rollers can be used to help alleviate inflammation in the lower to mid back regions.
- Massage Cane: These are quite possibly the most versatile massage tool available. Their unique shape is designed to massage even the hardest to reach areas. This product is perfect for anyone with neck, shoulder, and back issues.
A major component of self care is being aware of the messages your body is communicating. If you feel a knot becoming more agitated or your back starting to ache, give yourself that time to disengage and focus on your needs.
Heat and Ice
One of the most frequently used techniques to care for aches (both new and old) is a combination of heat and ice. But when is the most appropriate to use heat or ice
- Ice should be used to treat new injuries. This can help numb the pain and reduce initial inflammation. However, ice should not be used to reduce pain from muscle tension and spasms.
- Heat should be used to treat chronic aches and pains. The various ways to incorporate heat therapy into your self care regime!
- A simple shower or bath after getting home from work helps relax muscles throughout the body.
- If you have access to a spa or hot tub, the heat combined with massaging bubbles works wonders to help the body relax. However, hot tubs reach and maintain significantly high temperatures, so it is important to limit your soak to 25 minutes.
- Electric heating pads are the quickest way to treat chronic localized pain. Apply the heating pad to the affected area, and try distracting yourself with a book, music, or show on TV.
- Microwavable heating pads are typically made with a combination of grains, seeds, and herbs. These pads not only offer heating relief, but add an element of aromatherapy to your self care!
Note: When using heat to treat a chronic ache or pain, it is important to follow up with ice or a cold pack. Heat does wonders to relax and loosen muscles, but it can also cause additional inflammation.
Appropriate Mobility Aids
If you are living with a chronic condition that qualifies you for a mobility aid, be sure to assess that what you are using meets your needs! There have been a number of patients coming through our doors with walkers and wheelchairs that were doing more harm than good.
Seek out an expert opinion to evaluate your mobility aid’s effectiveness in offering you support. Physical therapists and medical supply shops are a good place to start, and if they cannot perform an evaluation they should be able to connect you with a capable medical professional who can.
Acupuncture is one of the core modalities included in our primary residential program. It can be used to treat a variety of pain conditions including lower back pain, migraines, muscle spasms – even digestive issues! The process is relatively pain free, but you may experience some mild discomfort. Our patients find the experience to be very calming and meditative. They report experiencing less pain and inflammation, while also providing relief from anxiety.
Talk to friends or family members you trust and discuss their experience with acupuncture. More pain patients are experimenting with holistic practices to manage their pain, so be sure to get their input as well. Speak with your doctor and see if there is someone they would recommend based on your specific needs. This holistic practice can be worked into your weekly schedule, and it may be covered by your insurance provider!
Depending on how long you have been living with chronic pain, you already may have stockpiles of these throughout your house, in your car, even at work! These portable patches work great in a pinch to stave off a pain flair up for a few hours. They essentially act as a pain band-aide, minimizing the severity of the pain until you can address the affected area with more attention. If you find relief from lidocaine, be sure to include them whenever you leave the house. They are small enough to fit inside a purse or wallet.
Most brands like Salonpas and Icy Hot have a spearmint scent, so if you are sensitive to smell, unscented options are available online. Additionally, if you have skin sensitivities, rashes, or blisters, these patches may not be the best choice for you. As always, consult with a doctor to see if lidocaine patches are a potential new tool for your self care toolkit.
Maybe you have tried lidocaine patches, but now you’re looking to take your self care to the next level. A TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) Unit is a small device connected to 2-4 electrode pads. The electrode pads are placed on the skin, and when the device is activated the electrodes provide stimulating pulses. Most people describe the feeling as a “gentle pulse,” not an electric shock.
How does it work? There are two theories that explain how pain is reduced with a TENS Unit.
- The first is referred to as The Gate Theory. Think of the spinal cord as our brain’s information superhighway. When a body part is injured or inflamed, said body part sends pain signals to our brain. We perceive this signal in varying levels of discomfort. The electrical stimulation of a TENS Unit acts as an opening and closing gate, interrupting the pain signals being sent to the brain.
- The second is the endorphin release theory. This theory suggests that the electrical pulses actually stimulate the release of our body’s natural pain relief chemical: endorphins.
These units range in size and can cost anywhere from $50-$150+. They are small enough to pack in a purse or backpack, and are a perfect pain management device for travel.
Psychological (Emotional) Self Care
Have you ever noticed that pain seems to be more unbearable when you are feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed? You are not alone. Many of the patients coming through our program have co-occurring psychological disorders like anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, trauma, and PTSD. We help them to understand that emotions have the potential to influence our perception and experience of pain. However, this can be difficult to control due to the fact that many psychological responses to pain happen subconsciously. Biofeedback devices help you gain awareness and develop an enhanced ability to control and regulate autonomic responses to pain.
Biofeedback can be made a part of your daily self care routine. The biofeedback monitor is used throughout the day as an emotional awareness tool. It is about the size of an MP3 player, and is connected to a pulse sensor that is placed on one’s earlobe to collect data. The data is a combination of respiration, temperature, and heart rate to provide information on one’s physiological stress response.
For example, when a person is relaxed the sensor will light up green and when a stress response arises the light will turn red. On the detailed computer screen there is displayed a score between 0-100 for stress and relaxation responses as well as a graph showing heart rate variability (how much one’s heart rate increases during inhalation and how much it decreases during exhalation).
Biofeedback monitors should be used in conjunction with relaxation response techniques like boxed breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
Animals are incredible creatures. They cannot lie, they live very much in the present, and they are always there when you need them most. Dogs are particularly sensitive to our emotions and offer emotional support through their companionship and affection. They tend to bring out the best in us, possibly because they see us as the best version of ourselves.
Dogs encourage us to get out of the house and move, and movement is great for our mental health self care! When we exercise, our body releases endorphins – our organic feel good chemical. Owning a dog can help hold you accountable for daily exercise. They love to get out and experience nature, socialize with other dogs, and of course play. They help us enjoy the smaller things in life, and serve as an icebreaker when meeting new people!
If you are a veteran looking into getting an emotional support or service dog, be sure to check out Pets for Vets and the Military Animal Project. These organizations have helped veterans who completed our program find furry friends for continued emotional support.
Emotional wellness is something that requires discipline and practice. Many chronic pain sufferers often read about mindfulness and meditation as a pain management coping skill, but think “yeah, let me just think my pain away. If it were that easy I would have already done it.” No one can develop a skill without practice, and I guess that explains why I still can’t dunk a basketball!
The perception we create dictates the reality we live in, and the same holds true regarding our perception of suffering. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a clinical exercise focused on reworking negative thought patterns, and helps us gain better control of redirecting our perception of reality and changing our behavior. However, you do not need to work with a therapist to develop mindful habits.
Above all, mindfulness is about being present; not dwelling on the past or fearing the future. This quote from James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy, grasps the essence of being mindful: “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the present without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).”
If you are interested in incorporating mindfulness into your self care regime, there are plenty of self help resources available online. You can find mindfulness lectures and podcasts on YouTube and Soundcloud. If you are in recovery and are interested in practicing mindfulness, be sure to check out John Bruna’s Mindfulness in Recovery Workbooks.
Sometimes the best way to pull ourselves out of an emotional rut is laughter. Fortunately in our digital age we have nearly unlimited resources to find something online that will help us crack a smile. Don’t feel guilty for putting on your favorite pair of sweats, snuggling up with a familiar blanket, and binge watching a few episodes of The Office.
What makes humor even more enjoyable is when it’s relatable! Now more than ever there are chronic pain humor accounts popping up on social media. We reached out to a few of our followers who recommended checking out The Unchargables on Facebook and Pain Humor on Pinterest.
The songs we listen to are often reflective of our mood or feelings. Some songs get us pumped up for the gym, while others help us embrace the mellowness of the beach or pool. However, some of us fall into the vortex of listening to sad music when we are feeling depressed or anxious. While these songs offer some sense of comfort in being able to relate to the artist’s message, they also reaffirm and solidify a depressed state.
We recommend creating a good vibes playlist. These songs will be different for everyone. As you go through your music keep an ear out for those songs that elicit a strong positive emotional response. I have found in my own personal experience that these tracks are tied to specific memories or events. When I hear these songs (I’m looking at you Bon Jovi), it is as if I am channeling the emotions personally associated with the music.
Keep a list of these songs on your phone so you can put on in a moment’s notice. You can also store your playlists in the cloud if you use a music streaming service like Spotify or Pandora Plus.
Journaling as a safe space to vent
Wouldn’t it be great sometimes to shout your frustrations from the top of a mountain? To let out every fear and anxiety that you have been holding in? Maybe your boss or co-worker simply doesn’t understand what it’s like to live in constant pain, and you wish you could tell them exactly how you feel. This may not be option, or even wise to do, but it is very important to allow yourself an opportunity to claim how you feel.
Journaling is an excellent way to release pent up emotional tension. It also provides you with time to process how you truly feel. This is what is referred to as narrative therapy, something our patients participate in on a daily basis. Consider adding this to your nightly self care routine, or in the early morning. Check out Julie Cameron’s “Morning Pages” stream of consciousness writing. Having an opportunity to express and process your emotions will help you start the day off right and give you peace of mind before bed.
Keep a gratitude list
Living with chronic pain can be consuming, and for many it’s a struggle to get through the day. At times it can be difficult to find things to be grateful for, but gratitude is an extremely healthy and helpful coping strategy.
The main premise is that it is almost impossible to suffer and be in gratitude at the same time. This can become an important component of a daily living plan. One suggestion is to start keeping a daily gratitude journal. At the end of each day make a list of at least five things you were grateful for. At the end of each week pick the top seven things you were grateful for. Then at the end of the month pick the top twenty things. Taking it one step further, at the end of the year pick the top 30 things from the previous 12 months that you felt grateful for. If you are consistent with this practice you will experience a new level of peace and freedom from suffering.
Social Self Care
Join online support groups
Living with a chronic condition is tough, but finding others who truly get how you feel and understand what you are experiencing may be even harder. You have likely already turned to family and friends to talk about the difficulties of living with a chronic condition, but this can be difficult to sustain for a number of reasons.
- Some people just don’t get it.
- Others don’t want to hear it.
- Insecure of not knowing what to say.
- They are burnt out and only get frustrated.
Fortunately, online communities have popped up in recent years specifically for those with chronic pain and chronic illness. Log onto your favorite social media platform and search the hashtag spoonie (#spoonie). This will connect you with a number of chronic pain/illness support groups, and you will also find spoonie influencers who post supportive and relatable content.
You can also find structured chronic pain support groups like Chronic Pain Anonymous (CPA) via Google or Bing. CPA offers fellowship to anyone with a desire to stop suffering associated with chronic pain. They can help you find local meetings in your area, or you can participate in meetings online or over the phone.
Participating in activities that bring you happiness
Hobbies are important for a number of reasons. They allow us to be creative, they provide you with opportunities to learn and grow, and they connect us with others who share your passion. Now that you are living with chronic pain, you may feel as if you can no longer participate in activities you enjoy because they are too strenuous. This is especially true for physically demanding hobbies like surfing, kayaking, or basketball.
Although you may have limited hands-on involvement with your hobby, it does not mean you have to isolate yourself from a community you have grown attached to. You can find new ways to stay involved and maintain the social connectedness developed over the years.
- Modify your physical involvement
- Join clubs and online groups
- Visit local conventions and meet ups
- Attend competitions related to your hobby
Keep an eye out for events in your area that you can work into your schedule. Communicate to your friends and loved ones that this hobby is part of getting your social needs met. See if they can assist in transportation or to attend the event with you!
Spiritual Self Care
Chronic pain is often misunderstood. In addition to the biopsychosocial impacts of living with it, a spiritual crisis frequently accompanies the condition. Chronic Pain is a body mind spirit problem that needs a multifaceted solution that includes addressing the often missing component of spirituality. Spiritual healing is an effective complementary approach to Chronic Pain treatment. Many people have found spiritual interventions like the traditions of prayer and meditation to contribute to the easing of their suffering. Unfortunately, in our fast paced world and our secular treatment modality the spiritual component of managing chronic pain does not get enough attention.
We live in a world where we are bombarded with distractions, and our minds constantly shifting from thought to thought can make it difficult to stay present and feel connected to something greater than yourself. Patients start each morning with a meditative session focused on daily intentions that are reflective of values they wish to strengthen. Understanding these values lead us to discovering what our ultimate sense of purpose is. If you are new to meditation, there are a wide variety of tools available to help you being the process. There are even some apps that offer guided meditation tracks with both music and voice overs.
After being diagnosed with a chronic condition, many pain sufferers find themselves asking their God “why me?” Many people who grew up with a connection to an identified religion feel their spiritual relationship diminish as pain becomes more persistent. Although it can be difficult to maintain a spiritual connection when you suffer each and every day, prayer can be a source of inspiration and hope.
You may feel a desire to reconnect or further strengthen your spiritually. Perhaps you had a bad experience with a prior religious organization forcing you to be cautious about immersing yourself back in that environment. You might also be looking for something completely new or less structured. If any of these situations resonate with you, a spiritual retreat or spiritual direction with a certified practitioner may be helpful. They are usually offered through a local church or wellness programs. They often have different themes or focuses, and some may include immersing yourself in nature.
We believe in the importance of treating chronic pain holistically, rather than focusing primarily on the biomedical dimensions of pain care and management. Incorporating spiritual discussions into the AHP curriculum creates an opportunity for increased clinical effectiveness in managing pain. Read more about the role Spirituality plays in Chronic Pain Management here.