Managing Stress While Living with Chronic Pain or Illness – by Ashley Boynes-Shuck

As many as 90% of doctor visits, and thus coinciding conditions, have stress as a causative or effective component.

Stress is a part of life for everyone, and how stress is handled varies from person to person.

Unfortunately, for people living with a disability, chronic illness, or any other medical problem, life tends to come with a little bit of extra stress on top of “everyday” worries.

Marriage/relationships, money, and jobs are three big stress factors in most peoples’ lives – and so is health. But, when you’re constantly worrying about your health, it can take a toll on you….not to mention that living with an ongoing health issue can negatively effect the above categories: relationships, money, and jobs, making the stress seem never-ending.

The catch-22 in living with a chronic pain condition or rheumatic illness is that stress can actually exacerbate symptoms, making it a vicious cycle that can be frustrating, but once controlled, can potentially improve our quality of life.

So, how do we better handle stress in order to improve our physical health and mental well-being?

  • For one, we can stop blaming our bodies, and our health for everything that goes wrong in our lives. Dwelling on our health issues and playing the blame game is only going to make things worse for us both emotionally and physically. Our health situation is what it is. At some point, we have to stop obsessing over it and letting it control us, adding additional stress in an already-stressful world.
  • Feng-shui your life. Surround yourself with soothing colors, comforting aromas, and relaxing music. Make your home less cluttered, more open, and more serene. Think about calmness and cleanliness…and simplify, simplify, simplify in all areas of your life!
  • Journal your feelings. Writing is a great stress-reliever. If writing causes you physical pain, consider using an ergonomic arthritis-friendly pen, or, a dictation program on the computer. Writing about our feelings can help us better put things into perspective, and figure out what things are stress triggers for us.
  • Conserve your energy. Decide what needs to be done each day versus what you feel like you have to get done. Prioritize your tasks and know that it’s okay to have a day where you aren’t accomplishing everything on your to-do list. This goes for sick people and healthy people alike. Most things can wait until tomorrow, if need be.
  • Live in the moment. Be mindful and practice gratitude day-to-day. Appreciate your surroundings, and the good things in your life. Don’t dwell on the negative things. Be present. Try not to be “Chicken Little” — the sky isn’t falling.
  • Be more fun! Yes, you read that correctly. Mayo Clinic rheumatologist Dr. Nisha Manek, M.D., says, “Don’t wait for enjoyment to come to you. Make a conscious choice to bring laughter and camaraderie into your life. Invite a few friends over, no matter how messy you think your house is, or have dinner out with friends, no matter how much you feel like staying home and sulking.”
  • Practice deep breathing. Breathe from your abdomen, in through your nose, out through your mouth. Deep breaths. FEEL IT. Focus on it. Notice your body relaxing, and calming down from within.
  • Talk to a therapist. A psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor may be able to help you better manage stress and anxiety, with or without medications. Even venting to a friend or family member when you are feeling stressed out may help you to feel better and to better cope with the situations at hand.
  • This too shall pass. Remind yourself that many things that you panic over are temporary and fleeting. “Don’t sweat the small things” in life. Ask yourself if your stressor will be important a few days from now? A year from now? Look at the grand scheme of things, and focus on the entire picture of your life. Is what you’re worrying about really that big of a deal, or are you just making it a big deal?
  • Get in touch with nature. A walk outdoors, even for 10 minutes or so, is enough to get some fresh air in your lungs and get your blood flowing. Listen to birds chirping, water flowing, wind blowing. Appreciate the rustle of leaves or the beauty of the clouds.
  • Meditate. There are so many different ways to meditate, and you can do it on your own, take a class, or join a group! From biofeedback to guided imagery, there’s a whole world of meditation to be discovered.
  • Exercise. Yoga, water therapy, and tai chi are especially great for reducing stress, but so is any form of physical activity that gets your body moving and releasing endorphins.
  • Get a furry friend! Pets are known to reduce stress, and are proven to be good for our health and our longevity.
  • Eat well. Live an overall healthy lifestyle, starting with nutrition.
  • Get enough rest. Don’t oversleep, but rest when your body tells you that you need to. Proper sleep, as mentioned in a recent post, is crucial to managing our health.
  • Connect the dots. Realize that, often, periods of heavy stress result in bad flares. Reducing stress in your life could improve physical symptoms. It sometimes is more complicated than that, but, try to see that sometimes, it is just that simple.
  • Cause and effect. Recognize what causes you stress, and try to avoid it, or, at least try to organize and prioritize your life to make it more manageable. Try to organize your thoughts, too. Weed out harmful and unwanted thoughts that cause you further stress and anxiety. Focus on your good, productive, and purposeful thoughts.
  • Live and think with intention.
  • Try progressive muscle relaxation when feeling extra stressed-out and anxious. Learn more, here.
  • Have moments of quiet. If you’re always connected to the computer, watching television, having music blaring, or having your smartphone attached to your hand, you may need to disconnect for awhile. Sometimes, being overstimulated can subconsciously stress us out — big time. So unplug for a bit!
  • Think positively! It does take work. It doesn’t come naturally to most people — it’s human nature to fear the worst. But, thinking positive can have benefit. For example, according to Arthritis Today Magazine, “studies performed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Torino Medical School in Italy suggest when you anticipate relief from pain, the brain delivers by releasing natural painkillers and changing neuron activity to help you feel better, regardless of the treatment.”  Likewise, people who only focus on their pain tend to feel more pain, and tend to become more stressed out about their illness.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Delegate. Don’t be ashamed. Reach out! People are often more willing to help out than we think — they just may not know what to do or what you need.
  • Spend time with people you love, and doing things you love and that you still can do.
  • Avoid caffeine and stimulants.
  • Pray….and if you’re not religious or spiritual, you can still do a version of prayer by just thinking about things that you are grateful for, and releasing your stress through your thoughts.
  • Ask your doctor if any of your medications could be making you feel anxious or on-edge. Or, could a medication or natural supplement be prescribed to help you deal with your anxiety or stress? Also ask your doctor for more suggestions on how to reduce stress in your life. Should you cut back your hours at work? Hire a cleaning service or a babysitter now and then? Join a support group? Exercise more? Sleep more, sleep less? Talk with your doctor about how to better manage your life with arthritis. You may be surprised at the answers he or she may come up with.

If you have any additional recommendations or suggestions on how to beat stress and anxiety in the face of chronic illness and arthritis, please share in a comment, below!  And, you can learn more from Arthritis Today, here, and from the American Institute of Stress, here.

Thanks for reading. And remember…every day isn’t good…but, there’s something good in every day!


Stay Well,

Ashley Boynes-Shuck

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