How to Have a Better Attitude Toward Fitness (When You Have Chronic Pain)

We all know that the majority of the research says exercise = less pain. Honestly, I’m a supporter of this idea. Why? Because it has literally worked for me. I’ve managed to get off one medication, which happened when the only major lifestyle changes I had made were daily exercise (strength and cardio/waling) and daily meditation (plus yoga 2-3x/week). No more Lyrica for me! Now that doesn’t mean that I no longer have pain. It’s just more manageable. I notice that when I don’t exercise, my pain actually increases. Of course, this all seems totally backwards to our brains., mine included. When exercise was initially presented to me as an option for reducing pain, I was like “no way I’m going to do that! I’ll be in more pain.” Then I tried it and the rest is history.

yoga!

The thing is, even if you believe that exercise will help (and I’m aware that some of you don’t believe it, and that’s okay)the problem becomes, how do we reframe our minds so that we can actually start to engage in some physical activity? There are a way different ways we can approach this (or use all of these ways, depending on what you need). The very first thing I do is connect with my values. Why is this important to me? What values will I be living by? For me, when it comes to exercise this is often aligning with values of health, self-care, and independence. They might be the same for you, or totally different. The second thing I do is to just looking at my thoughts. I ask myself, are these thoughts helpful or unhelpful? Are they taking me toward the life I want to live or away from it? Then it’s helpful to create some distance from them. This can be anything from naming the story I’m telling myself, to speaking the thought aloud with the phrase “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that…”, to placing the thought on a leaf in my mind and watching it float down a stream.

At this point if I notice any sensations of anxiety or another emotion, I try to make some room for those. Maybe I send my breath into that area, or remember it’s normal to have anxiety, or drop an anchor which involves allowing my emotions to be there. By this point, I can usually do whatever activity it is I’ve decided I need to do (so in this case, exercise). While exercising there are a few more things I do so that I can improve my attitude. Firstly, I make sure my movement is mindful. I stay with the sensations of the movement, the smells in the air around me, what I can see and hear, all while exercising. This can be done on a walk or while doing strength training. You could also try yoga as a form of mindful movement that allows for stretching and exercise as added benefits. All my stretching in general is also done mindfully. I also make room for sensations while exercising. DO NOT exercise if it’s actually causing you extra physical pain. A little discomfort though is completely normal. I might do a quick body scan to check in with myself and make room for physical discomfort. I definitely use my noticing self to step back and just notice if it’s actually pain I’m feeling or if it is just discomfort that comes from exercise.

Lastly, I commit. I started out just going to the gym 3x/week. During the pandemic I built it up to strength training at home and going for walks to get fresh air and yoga a few times a week. The point is, you can start slow. And it’s probably better to if it’s a big change. You can also work with a physio/physical therapist, kinesiologist, occupational therapist, or personal trainer to help you get started (I worked with my physiotherapist, chiropractor and a personal trainer when I started). Here’s a podcast episode about exercise for chronic pain. So hopefully, this gives you some ideas on how to improve your attitude toward fitness with chronic pain. Until next week, keep making the most of it!

Keeping Track of Your Mental Health

As my many of my fellow chronic illness warriors know, mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety are real…ly common . Not that they are necessarily constant, though the can be. I actually do a whole episode of my podcast on mental health and it’s relation to chronic illness, so feel free to check that out for more info. For today however, I want to take a look at one element of our mental health, which is commonly experienced by everyone (seriously everyone) whether or not they have another underlying physical or mental illness. Negative automatic thoughts (or NATs).

download.jpgImage from: https://www.cbtcognitivebehavioraltherapy.com/what-is-automatic-negative-thoughts-ants/

NATs are those subconscious thoughts that you don’t realize you’re having until you do (and even then you may not realize that’s what they are). It’s the thoughts of “I suck,” “how could I be so stupid,” “what an idiot I am,” “why am I dumb enough to say that,” etc, etc, etc. Are they accurate thoughts? Usually not. But we all have them from time to time (or more often, but we’ll get to that in a minute). These thoughts, according to cognitive behavioural therapy, can lead to anxiety and depression. Why? Because our thoughts cause our feelings. If we keep telling ourselves that we are “stupid” or “not good enough” or whatever terrible thing we say to ourselves, we will (a) start to believe it, and (b) feel upset about it. Makes sense right?

viciouscircle1
Image from: https://iveronicawalsh.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/the-vicious-circle-of-negative-auto-pilot-thinking/

If you’ve gone to a CBT therapist, you may have experience with thought records. Basically, this is a sheet (or note on your phone) where you record your thought and your feeling every time you have one of these negative automatic thoughts. The point is twofold. First, it’s to see how often you are having these thoughts and what emotions are connected to them. Second, it allows you the opportunity to begin changing these thoughts. If you can catch yourself saying “I’m stupid” then you can change it to, “you know that may have not been the smartest choice to make but I’ve learned from it so I won’t do it again.” Or more simply, “I’m not stupid, I’m smart, I just did a silly thing.” To be honest, this is a much harder skill to learn than it seems, but it can be done.

unnamed.gifImage from: http://www.allaboutdepression.com/workshops/CBT_Workshop/CBT_12.html

Changing these thoughts into positive ones instead of negative is an ultimate act of self-love. To be honest, since I started to practice this a few years ago, I have less NATs than I did before. Yes, they still pop up, but I can catch myself and reframe the thought because I know that the thought isn’t true. I encourage everyone to try to keep track of your thoughts for awhile so you can catch these nasty little NATs and try to take some ownership of your mental health through self-love.