Chronic Illness or chronic pain is usually a long-standing pain, over 3 months, that can be consistent, intermittent (‘on and off’) and can often be an ‘invisible’ illness.
I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis when I was just 16 years old. I had been very active playing a lot of sports including running, field hockey and tennis before the diagnosis so my life was turned upside down. Since then, I have been on many medications, have developed other auto-immune diagnoses and have recently been diagnosed with Osteoarthritis.
I have found that the hardest part of this illness is that it is mostly ‘invisible’ so people tend to treat you differently than if you had a ‘visible’ illness or injury. It is also hard to describe that it is not like having a broken leg, where you rest and then eventually you are all better. Chronic illness ebbs and flows, so some days I might be able to go for a walk or even a run, and then next week I am having trouble walking. Activities are not always the cause of more pain, sometimes we do nothing and pain comes anyway.
It can be quite difficult to describe the pain – sometimes it is very obvious joint pain or inflammation if there is flare, but often, it is the fatigue, the brain fog and the grief accompanying the illness. For me, I grieved the athlete I could have been, the education I missed out on (I could not compete all my exams) which affected the careers I could have had. I lived with anger, resentment and denial for a lot of my 20s, self-medicating with alcohol and smoking while trying to continue life as normal which inevitably made my disease worse.
One of the hardest parts of a life-long illness is accepting that your life may not be the way you had imagined it. The grief that comes with this loss of potential can cause resentment and anger, which is totally valid. However, feeling this way is only hurting ourselves and takes away from looking at what can be achieved. Restructuring your life and goals in therapy can lead to a fulfilling life and can lead to other opportunities previously not considered.
When I moved to Vancouver from Dublin, Ireland in 2011, I vowed that I would adapt my lifestyle to improve my physical and mental health. It was a great new start for me and I embraced it fully. I restructured my goals and made a new plan for what would be the best that I could achieve living with this condition. I quit smoking, I researched diet plans that would work for me and I slowed my life down. Decreasing stress was one of the best things I could have done for myself.
So, what are some coping strategies for improving mental health while dealing with chronic pain? I have learned the following in the past 25 years:
– You are not alone. It can feel so isolating sometimes but there are others out there. I follow Eileen Davidson (@chroniceileen on Instagram) and she is an amazing advocate for people with chronic illness. You can find her blog here: https://chroniceileen.com/
– If possible, reach out to health professionals to discover what medications, diets and lifestyles work best for you and your auto-immune disease. Everyone is different so it’s good to do as much research as possible.
– Restructure goals. Once the diagnosis has been accepted, realizing what is achievable and realistic can provide a new path to a satisfying life.
– Speak to a therapist. Seeing a therapist while I was really struggling was life-changing for me. I saw things in a whole new light and really helped with the anxiety and low feelings I was having.
– Put yourself first. Trying to continue life as normal is so hard when you are dealing with a chronic health condition. Prioritize your health so that you can be the best version of yourself.
What I have learned is that most people with chronic pain are so resilient – managing a chronic illness can feel like a part time job sometimes between managing medication, exercises, appointments and learning to say no when your body needs to rest. It can be so hard when you just want to live a ‘normal life’ but so important to put yourself and your health first. If you are dealing with chronic health issues and want to talk, you can reach out for a 15-minute free consultation by filling out the short form at the bottom of this link.