When you live in pain you already have to deal with so much disappointment and heartache, doing what you love should become priority. Yet so frequently, and often understandably, those with chronic pain and illness let go of the very pleasures they once adored, whether through necessity — physical and otherwise — or drifting away from everything in life before illness and pain.
Perhaps not initially, especially if resistant to even the acceptance of illness — no matter how fervently your symptoms screamed otherwise — but soon the struggle gives way to letting go of activities that now need both additional preparation and painful recovery too. Add depression to this already complicated combination and even the desire to act itself can become its own additional challenge.
If your life in pain has become the dullest routine of simply trying to make it through the day, with very little for you, supporting you, nurturing and nourishing you, that’s certainly not good for the soul, nor your ability to live and live well with pain. Even if you are entirely debilitated, this post focuses on why and how you can bring a little joy and pleasure back into your life, if necessary, in even the most passive of ways.
Never Feeling Good
When we always feel awful and ever-thwarted by our chronic pain and other symptoms, we are less likely to do even the things we love the most. Because every activity is painful, it’s little wonder that so many in pain have stopped doing many or even all of the activities they once enjoyed but a lack of stimulation and doing things you love can lead to an even deeper depression and further isolation.
Additionally, it’s easy to fall into the less than nourishing trap of comparison, wherein you are forever thinking of the you before illness and pain, who once accomplished so much in a day, or was proud of your achievements and traits – traits that you are perhaps now unable to express because of the seemingly endless limitations so harshly placed upon your life because of pain and illness.
It may be natural in many ways, after all chronic pain and illness is a full-time job, only one without so much as coffee break, much less a day or evening off. It can be hard enough just making it through the day and the most necessary of tasks, let alone additional activities done purely for the joy of them.
Shift Your Focus
Do not focus on what you cannot do now, instead create a distance between you and those thoughts, you and those memories. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has helped so many in pain because it allows us to look at our thoughts and the things we tell ourselves and analyse them for truths. Then in turn replace any less-than-helpful thoughts with more nourishing ones.
Read this post on how to use these techniques to help you cope and be kinder to yourself. It’s a sad fact but a true one that we are so often our own worst enemies, sometimes even blaming ourselves for what is so out of our control or becoming angry at our inability to do what we once did with ease.
ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is a more recent development of CBT and also can give you tools to cope with the endless thoughts that come with pain and illness. Look on your memories with love, not heartache and heaviness. No matter how many times you think of before you were ill and in pain, the past never changes by looking at it. Instead think about what you used to enjoy, the things you did for pleasure, and see if they are connected in some way and can in turn be modified or something related can be enjoyed.
Perhaps you used to love to make music but now don’t even listen to it let alone are able to make it but in rekindling that — passive — activity of listening to music again, you can return your love of music to your life. I played trumpet for years in a jazz band but now cannot so much as hold it much less play it but in creating a few playlists of the music I loved to play, instead of feeling sad, it makes me smile, and joy — aside from being an effective pain-reducer — can help you cope with your chronic illness and pain.
Life is in itself a process of letting go and those of us with chronic pain and illness know this lesson far more directly than most but not everything needs to be relinquished nor mourned. Obviously it is not the same, not quite as wonderful but the point is to adapt and find new or modified pleasures that do bring you happiness.
Maybe you loved long walks in the countryside or hiking in the hills and now find crossing a room impossibly painful. Of course hiking is a heavenly pursuit but making yourself sad and upset by focusing on never being able to experience that pleasure again helps no one, least of all you. Perhaps you can still be taken out into nature by car and enjoy a fine view on a day out.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that simply being around nature can lower stress levels and boost your mental health too. If you cannot get outside, you can still benefit from simply looking at images of natural scenes. A study by Berto (2005) found that just viewing pictures of natural scenes had a restorative effect on cognitive function and stress-relief too. People were restored by picture of trees, fields and hills, but not by streets, industrial units or even complex geometric patterns. When unable to leave your home, a documentary on nature or travel could lift your spirits.
It’s obviously not as lovely as being out and walking through nature but simply being in nature, as well as looking at images of nature, have both been scientifically proven to help reduce stress and induce calm. Both of which become all the more vital when in pain. Often there are alternatives or means to doing similar activities that can be modified in some way but never focus on what is lost.
Even in such crazy conditions as this, there is still much to live for. In fact, with a little imagination and support, you can enjoy albeit modified versions of that which you loved, which is vital. A life with nothing to look forward to or enjoy can become an even harder place to be.
Connecting With Loved-Ones
Spending time with loved-ones when you are in so much pain is exhausting yet no human connection can be far more damaging, isolating and of course depressing too. Set a time limit and speak one-one on to a visitor who you care for. Prepare first, recover after but take joy in that connection.
Skype and FaceTime are both amazing ways to connect with your loved-ones from anywhere on this planet. They need not be in the same town, in fact, some of my deepest connections are flung far and wide and Skype has become a healing medium to keep in touch with these beautiful souls.
Connecting with those you love, having a giggle, or even rant and moan should you want that, is healing. Humans aren’t meant to be so isolated but that’s far more tricky when so debilitated with pain and illness. Reach out, online, on the phone if you are able to use it without flaring your symptoms and connect.
Why Activity and Experiences Help Reduce Pain and Retrain the Brain
New experiences, novel activities and even relatively passive tasks that keep your brain fit actually strengthen neural networks, which becomes all the more vital when you have chronic pain. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain’s neurones to grow, reorganise their networks, make new connections and functions that result from your thoughts, environment, the emotions you feel, and the things you do.
Brain cells, or neurons, may shrink as we age but neurones don’t just die off by their thousands as scientists once believed. It’s now known that the brain exhibits plasticity, that is, allowing neural connections to be forged even late in life. In the last ten years our understanding of the brain has – pardon the pun – been turned on its head.
In chronic pain maladaptive neuroplasticity causes the brain to transmit unwarranted pain signals, keeping the pain gates forever open and you in a vicious cycle of pain. The constant pain signals become stuck on a loop and it is this which has led to remarkably successful brain training therapies such as Graded Motor Imagery and Mirror Box Therapy, which are already having results for many chronic pain patients.
New experiences can counteract the maladaptive neuroplasticity that comes with chronic pain and by engaging in activities you enjoy though they do not need to only be active activities. A study published in 2002 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who regularly read, solve crossword puzzles, play cards or checkers, or visit museums are less likely to experience mental decline than those who do not. Even a practice as passive as meditation has been shown to cause positive neuroplastic changes in the brain.
Why it is So Vital to Do What You Love [When Living in Pain]
Aside from the aforementioned brain benefits, when you are engaged in something you love and your focus on that, the pain, though clearly still very much present, is easier to cope with. Every kindness you can do for yourself can help you cope with chronic illness and pain. Working with, not against, your illness and pain can lead to your life being far happier and a happier life is a more resilient one no matter the depth of the challenges you face
Depression and pain are so frequently connected and yet each makes it harder to heal and cope with the other. However, even the humblest of daily actions that you do for you, a gift to yourself, by doing more of what you love — even passive activities, like listening to music, having a candlelit epsom salt soak, watching good films or reading poems or short stories, when pain is too high for anything else — is nourishing no matter the cause of your pain.
Factoring play into your life also gives your brain opportunities to produce serotonin and dopamine, both of these neurotransmitters play a huge part in your mood. Relaxing and enjoyable activities also can help to quieten an overactive nervous system, in turn lessening your pain levels albeit just a little, reducing stress-related neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), and increasing nourishing neurotransmitters.
Our lives are small enough with such severe pain conditions. Additionally, the maladaptive neuroplasticity that chronic pain causes is worsened when every day stays the same. There is no new stimulus, only pain and quite naturally, it’s easy for us to focus on that pain instead of perhaps something that we can look forward to.
That may not be easy, in fact far from it, it’s natural to focus on what hurts, especially when it’s severe pain but in choosing and participating in activities that make you feel good reinforces the neuronal pathways in your brain. Novelty and focus also play a massive part in creating neural pathways.
Returning to What You Love
If you are able to modify the activities and things you love a little to accommodate your ability to engage in these pastimes again or find new passions, it brings a new joy to your life.
- Perhaps you used to love to make delicious meals for your friends but now the pain and other symptoms has made that impossible. So now you miss being creative in the kitchen and the social side too. Think of ways to rekindle that passion and joy. Your friends could visit with a pot each. Or perhaps come to help you cook first or bring a take-away over. If you are able to stick within your energy envelope and pacing limitations to avoid flaring-up, you may find that much loved lost pleasures can be returned to you, albeit modified a little.
- You may have loved to mess around with paints or create watercolours but now the pain and consequences of doing so is far too severe, leaving you sad and not painting. Instead use pacing to return to the canvas. Oil painting is one medium that allows you to stop and return to it over a whole month before it dries, which is ideal for those of us who don’t have the strength or luxury to paint in long sessions.
- If writing is a deep love but using a pen too painful, you might like to try dictation software or simply break up your writing into timed sessions, much like when you use pacing for any other activity.
- Alternatively take up a physically less physically demanding but equally creative pursuit and write short poetry or haiku though it need not be a creative pastime but anything you love.
- Spending time with animals is especially stress-relieving but pets are not always an option when chronic illness and pain is so limiting and debilitating. If your friends and family can visit with their pets, that too could be a lovely way to put a little sunshine into your days.
- Listen to music, sing in the shower or bath, even humming has been shown to lessen stress levels and music itself help reduce pain.
- Spending time with loved-ones when you are in so much pain is exhausting yet no human connection is actually far more damaging on so many levels. Set a time limit and speak one-one on to a visitor who you care for. Prepare first, recover after but take joy in that connection.
- Skype too is an amazing way to connect with your loved-ones. They need not be in the same town, in fact, some of my deepest connections are flung far and wide and Skype has become a healing medium to keep in touch with these beautiful souls.
- Nature is healing on every level. Perhaps you loved to visit the shore on a windy day or float or even sail in a dingy on a sunny one. These things may be far more difficult but they should never be banished from your life. Sometimes we know what we have planned will lead to a painful flare-up but the pleasure we derive from doing so makes it all worthwhile, comparatively anyway.