Video: Cooking with Kels – Sweet Potato Bowls

I’ve been eating a lot more plant-based lately and it seems to be helpful fr my digestions, so I decided to share one of my favourite recipes with you. The recipe was also shared by my guest, Kathy A. Davis on my podcast. Listen to it here.

Until next time, keep making the most of it!

My Ultimate Pain Coping Skills Part 1: Self-Monitoring

I decided to do a 4-part series on some of my favourite pain coping skills. They are all either my favourites because I have found them to be particularly useful for me, or that reason plus I have seen them be useful for other people. I will also add that I always double check to see if there is any scholarly literature on the subjects I write about, and there definitely is for all of these coping skills. So, without further ado, lets start off with self-monitoring.

What is self-monitoring?

You might be asking, what is self-monitoring? It is a part of our awareness (executive functioning in the brain) that we all have, that tracks our behaviours and the impacts they have on us and our environment so that we can alter our behaviour in the future if we choose to. We all use this pretty often. For example, adjusting to social norms would be using self-monitoring. So would reviewing your work for mistakes (because ideally you won’t want to make the same ones in the future). We can break self-monitoring down into two types. Qualitative – or what I’ll call subjective monitoring – which is how our emotions, sensations and behaviours change throughout the day and during different situations. Then there is quantitative – or what I’ll call objective monitoring – which is the frequency, duration, and difficulty of our behaviours.

What the heck does this have to do with chronic pain? Sometimes people with pain over-self-monitor in that we overthink our pain and our behaviours which is typically not helpful (I’ll get to that in a minute). When done properly, self-monitoring can be used to help us accept our emotions and sensation, create some distance between us and our thoughts about pain, and get us to do behaviours/actions/set goals/whatever you want to call it, that will improve our lives or just in general fulfill us! And this is what I see is often difficult for chronic pain warriors. For example, if I notice that a certain activity causes me more pain than normal, I would mentally note that as well as the frequency, duration and difficulty of the activity so that I can make adjustments in the future (i.e., not to the activity, do the activity for less time, do the activity less – or more, depending on the situation – often, or do a similar activity that is less difficult). A few years ago I did a pole dancing class. Super fun and a great workout. However, I did notice that my hip pain increased, especially after the class was over. I decided that while though it was fun, the friend I went with and I have lots of other activities we can do together and I exercise in other ways, that maybe this wasn’t the workout for me. I adjusted. Another example is hiking. I know how long a hike I can do (about 75-90 minutes max.) before I have expended too much energy and/or crossed my pain threshold. What does that mean? I still hike because I LOVE hiking, but I do it for 90 minutes or less, followed by rest.

I knew how much hiking I could handle on my Costa Rica trip.

Earlier I mentioned that when we over-self-monitor we often do things that aren’t helpful. This also happens when we don’t self-monitor our pain at all. Let’s tie it into that pain cycle I wrote about a few weeks back. In the pain cycle we see that being less active leads to a loss of fitness, weak muscles, and joint stiffness. If you self-monitor and notice that if you lay on the couch all day this happens but if you go for a (short) walk it doesn’t lead to these specific symptoms, that might lead you to do the walking. Pain cycle again says that then we create lists of “no go” things we cannot do, and this leads to sleep problems, tiredness, and fatigue, which also leads to stress, fear, anxiety, anger, and frustration. Okay, so doing less isn’t necessarily helpful even though our brains say it will be. We can also skip ahead in the cycle and go to negative thinking and fear of the future and how that leads to depression and mood swings. Monitoring our thoughts is helpful at this stage. And then there is time off work, which inevitably causes money worries and often ties into relationship concerns. And then everything leads back to more chronic pain. I want to point out with the activity portions of the above paragraph, that pacing is essential and I did a whole post on that a few weeks ago.

What can we do to start self-monitoring in an effective way? First thing is to keep track of your pain. This can be mentally, but if you have brain fog or just tend to forget it can be more effective to write it down in a journal. There’s a few ways you can track it. Just a general 1-10 score for the day and a list of what you did during the day. Or, if you want to be more effective with your activities, you could write a score before and after each activity you did to track changes. That will also tell you when there was no to little change so you know if you can keep doing the activity the same way, for the same amount of time. The other important thing to track in the journal can be other triggers to pain. For this one, I would suggest tracking emotional pain (sadness, anxiety, anger, etc.) as much as physical pain. Why? The body-mind connection. Often the more depressed we are, the more pain we have (and vice versa). Same with anxiety. It’s easier to make adjustments when we know what’s going on.

Find a way to track your pain AND activities AND emotions.
Image from: https://www.templateroller.com/template/39579/pain-tracker-form.html

Okay, longer post than I anticipated but I hope that it’s helpful for all of you warriors! Keep on making the most of it!

Video: Daily Mindfulness – Making Room for Anxiety

Making room for our emotions (like our sensations) can be difficult to do, mostly because we spend most of our time doing the opposite – pushing them away. If you watched my video from January 9 on The Struggle Switch, I explain how doing the opposite – allowing/accepting/making room for difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations – actually makes them less powerful and have less control over us. This meditation is one way we can learn to do it.

Let me know how it goes and keep making the most of it!

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What is the Chronic Pain Cycle and How Do I Break It?

The chronic pain cycle is essentially what happens to us when we are in pain and let it consume us. First off, this is normal! I totally remembering being there myself. Usually we try to address only part of the cycle, without managing the whole thing (i.e., we like those prescribed medications from our doctors but still get frustrated when they don’t fix everything). I thought today we could talk about a few different versions of the cycle, and address a few ways to address them so that pain is less consuming and we can get back to a life that is closer to what we want.

First off, some of the examples of the pain cycle are pretty basic. Pain leads to sleep problems leads to mood problems leads to decreased activity leads to low energy leads to decreased pain. Or pain leads to muscle tension leads to reduced circulation leads to muscle inflammation to reduced movement leads to pain. And any case, you can start pretty much anywhere in the cycle, but you always end up with more pain. A more comprehensive version of this cycle is shown in the diagram below.

Here’s the problem: our brains tell us that we shouldn’t move, we shouldn’t be active, that things will never be good for us, that we will never have normal lives, etc., etc. because they are trying to keep us safe. Unfortunately, all the research shows that our brains are incorrect and that these thoughts really don’t do us any service. They keep us trapped in the cycle. I remember when I first decided to start making changes for myself. I took myself to physiotherapy (physical therapy for you Americans), the chiropractor, the naturopath, massage therapy, and psychotherapy, because I wanted some relief. What I was encouraged to do was break the pain cycle. How?

  1. Psychoeducation/Health education about chronic pain. I know most of you won’t read scholarly journal articles (as I do) about all of this and that’s fine, but there is a wealth of information on the internet (think clinic websites: Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins, etc.). Also, if you talk to health care provides (your specialist, or any of the above that I’ve mentioned) they will be happy to provide you with the knowledge you need to start making different choices. You just have to be open and willing to listen.
  2. Increase fitness and exercise. This might be as simple as stretches and easy exercises given to you by the physiotherapist, chiropractor or massage therapist. It might also include actual cardio and/or strength training. This should of course be paced, and you should come up with a plan with your healthcare specialists. I went to the gym and got a personal trainer who had worked with people with autoimmune diseases before.
  3. Take your medication. Inflammation in particular is often best addressed with some sort of medication. Of course, there are alternative ways to address it as well, such as through diet or supplements. I like the approach of doing both. I take my medication as prescribed and then balance that with diet.
  4. Address side effects of medication, such as weight gain or others. This might be with your doctor – adjusting doses or which medication you take – or it could be done holistically through other therapies (as mentioned above), exercise, and diet.
  5. Address the cognitive issues that arise. This means anxiety, depression, sleep issues, stress, fear, frustration, anger, negative thinking, rumination, etc. While these are normal experiences, they can make it harder for us to make changes. These can be addressed through sleep hygiene, meditation, and psychotherapy.
Going on adventures even with pain.

Where am I in the pain cycle? Look, to be honest, some days it’s not perfect and I fall right into the cycle. However, most days I can openly and curiously acknowledge and accept my pain, breaking the cycle before it begins. I use all of these tools and healthcare providers because it helps. I know from experience that chronic pain does not have to be life consuming.

I’ve linked episodes of the podcast and my meditation channel throughout this post if you want more information. Until next week, keep making the most of it!

5 Easy Chronic Pain Self-Management Skills

Today I want to take a slice of Pete Moore’s Pain Toolkit and share it with you. Who is Pete Moore? He’s a chronic pain warrior who came up with this incredible Pain Toolkit to help others struggling with chronic pain. Here’s the website: https://www.paintoolkit.org/ . The truth is, we can learn to self-manage our chronic pain. Like Pete, I have also learned to do so to a point where, yes I have pain, but no it does not affect my day-to-day life (that’s not to say I don’t have bad days, heck I had bad pain the other night and had difficulty sleeping). One thing we want to do when we have chronic pain is cultivate resilience. Now, I’ve written about resilience before in the past, so I’m not going to go into detail here. For those who aren’t familiar with what resilience entails, here are a few things: optimism, self-belief, willingness, self-control, being able to adapt, psychological flexibility, problem-solving, emotional awareness, social support, and humour, to name a few. So, here are 5 ways we can learn to do this.

Doing these things helps me manage my chronic pain.
  1. Goal Setting and Action Planning I often set goals for myself, even on days that I’m not feeling great. In our third atmospheric river (basically several days of torrential downpour) since November in BC, Canada, I’m again feeling it in my body. But I know my body also needs to move. So I set a goal for how far I will walk in the rain (which is less than my goal would normally be but appropriate for the weather, my body at this moment, etc.). So, set your goals, and prepare for barriers to them. Here’s a podcast episode I recently did on that.
  2. Engaging in Activities of Daily Living – Getting out of bed, having a shower, eating breakfast, etc. All the regular stuff we do in our lives. It can be really hard to want to do them when you have an illness or pain, but doing them can also improve our overall well-being. Check out this episode of the podcast for more.
  3. Problem Solving – Problem solving can include a lot of different things. Pacing is important and I’ve done a post on that (December 1), prioritizing and planning your days, and really importantly, having a setback plan. What are you going to do when things don’t go the way you planned (in your goal setting and action planning stage). When I was recovering from hip surgery last year, I had to problem solve how to do all of my daily activities because I couldn’t put any weight on my left foot (for 6 weeks!) and I live alone. I still had to figure out how to cook, shower, dress, and even get to some appointments.
  4. Be Active – this will mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it really means to move your body. It could be walking, exercise/going to the gym, stretching, yoga. Exercise itself is an evidence-based treatment for chronic pain (here’s the podcast episode). It can be light movement, as long as it’s movement. I can’t go a day without moving my body. Even when I notice I’m having the thought that I don’t want to move or I’m in too much pain, I inevitably actually feel better if I go for a walk or do some restorative yoga.
  5. Be patient with yourself – offer yourself some compassion. Change is slow. Like it’s an average of 10 weeks for someone to start noticing differences (in their minds or bodies) when they start to make any changes. If you find you’re having difficulty being patient with yourself, try this mindfulness exercise. I’m definitely guilty of wanting change to occur quickly for myself. But interestingly, when I offer myself patience and compassion instead of criticism, change seems to actually occur more quickly than when I’m only hard on myself.
Remember, change is slow.

I hope this helps you with some pain management. I know it’s things that have helped me and many others. So, just keep making the most of it!

How to Manage Your Chronic Illness Through the Holidays

Let’s face it, we all stress through the holidays. It’s rarely an “easy” time of year for anyone. Over the years I have spent many holidays working in retail; I have had to share time between families (back when I was married); I’ve had to spend some Christmases all alone. And then there’s all the things we normally have to do like cook, and clean, and buy gifts (sometimes with limited money) and almost always with limited spoons (for those of you who use Spoon Theory). How can we be expected to manage all of this? And many of you may not handle it well. So, here’s what I’ve learned.

Do you like my Star Wars Ugly Christmas Sweater?

The most important thing to do is PACING. For those of you unfamiliar with my blog post on Pacing earlier this month, it basically comes down to doing the same amount of activity every day (so no over-exerting) regardless of how you feel. What usually happens, especially at this time of year, is we have a good day so we go ham and do as much as possible on that day (cooking, cleaning, etc) and then we end up not being able to do anything for day(s) after. If we do just 1 activity on that “good” day and then also do just 1 activity the next day, regardless if we feel better, the same, or a little worse, we will more easily avoid a string of “bad” days.

My only physical activity on this particular day in 2018 was ice skating.

The other most important thing is setting boundaries. Who says YOU have to host dinner? If you do host dinner, then maybe you don’t need to be the one to cook (can everyone bring a dish?) or clean by yourself (if you have a partner, can they help with the cleaning and prep). When shopping for presents, have you done it online? If you do have to go to the store, just use that as your 1 activity for the day (and wrapping the presents being an activity for another day). Tell your support system what you can do, and what you need help with. Stand up for yourself and don’t let them bully you.

It’s okay to say no, even if you have to say it to Santa himself.

If you don’t have a strong support system, which I know sometimes happens, then again, revert back to pacing, and say NO if you can’t do something (again, this could be hosting dinner, cleaning, etc), and see what other help you can get. Maybe there’s a neighbour or friend you can pay to help you cook or clean (that way it’s less expensive then hiring a professional). We need to use some flexible thinking and get outside the box.

I also recommend cuddling with your pet (if you have one) as they can help to reduce stress (RIP my little Spike).

The holidays are stressful, so we need to do what we can to manage our stress levels and take care of ourselves, while still living by our values (and hey, self-care may be one of your values). Have a Happy Holidays and keep making the most of it!

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Video: Pacing & Action Planning for Exercise

If you’re thinking about exercising to help with your chronic pain or overall health, it is important to consider two things: (1) pacing – so that you don’t over exert yourself one day and pay for it the next; and (2) action planning or goal setting so that exercise is realistic for you. Also, remember to always talk to your healthcare team before starting any new exercise routine! If you’re having thoughts about your ability to exercise that are causing you distress, check out this podcast episode.

Keep making the most of it!

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What’s the Difference Between Chronic Disease Distress & Depression?

Despite my educational and practicum background in counselling, I hadn’t heard the term “chronic disease distress” before I attended the World Pain Summit this past October. When we think of mental health issues in relation to chronic illness and chronic pain, only anxiety and depression come up. This makes sense since the rates of anxiety and depression in those with chronic illness are slightly higher than in the general population (reports vary exactly how much, and it does depend on the condition). Learning about chronic disease distress, I realize that’s actually what I had – not anxiety – when I was first dealing with my illness and attended therapy myself. I don’t know what my therapist would have defined my condition as, but I fit the description better than anxiety or depression.

During the hight of my chronic disease distress I had the best support (RIP).

What is chronic disease distress? This is distress that comes with the stress of having a chronic health condition. It has some overlapping symptoms with both anxiety and depression, which can include anxious (catastrophizing) thoughts, rumination, sadness and crying, difficulty sleeping, etc. In CDD this is more related to the illness itself, rather than other areas of life. Now, that’s not to say that it doesn’t impact other areas of life. Having a chronic illness clearly does, but the distress all relates back to the illness at the end. If you’re able to go into remission or get a handle on your physical symptoms so they are less impactful, typically the distress goes down as well (the distress itself can also be treated but I’ll get to that in a moment).

Chronic Disease Distress doesn’t have to last forever.

What is depression? Clinical depression (major depressive disorder) is a set a symptoms that include, but aren’t limited to, feelings of sadness, worthlessness, guilt, loss of interest in activities, difficulty sleeping, difficulty with thinking, lack of energy, thoughts of suicide, and so on. Not everyone who is depressed has clinical depression (you can have some symptoms but not enough to get that diagnosis). Depression is a world wide epidemic and has a significant impact on people’s lives.

Some researchers have come up with a scale to measure chronic disease distress. This scale includes measures for emotional burden (of the illness), regimen distress (lifestyle impacts), patient-provider distress (medical gaslighting would fall in this category), social support distress, and then a total score. Only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose any mental health condition. Personally, I try not to worry too much about a diagnosis (unless a medication is warranted) and otherwise focus on the symptoms and distress facing you, me, or anyone else.

What do we do about chronic disease distress? Obviously seeking counselling/therapy from a qualified mental health professional (preferably one who specializes in chronic illness) is going to be the best route to go. Otherwise, certainly self-help sections in your library or bookstore, or listening to podcasts on the topic are good ideas. Support groups as well can be very helpful. In the meantime, personally I find mindfulness a good place to start. There is a lot of evidence of it being helpful (plus I’ve personally found it helpful!). Mindfulness doesn’t have to mean meditation, but if mindfulness is the muscle, meditation is the best exercise for the muscle. I have formal (meditation) and informal (non-meditation) mindfulness practices on my YouTube channel.

I hope this helps you understand the difference between CDD and depression. If you have questions, feel free to reach out. For now, keep making the most of it!

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Video: Daily Mindfulness – Guided Light Imagery

This week’s mindfulness activity is a guided meditation that uses imagery of light to help us centre, ground, and sometimes it can even be relaxing. Notice what comes up for you while you do this practice. For more guided meditations, subscribe to my YouTube channel.

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Critical Coping: Problem-Focused vs. Emotion-Focused

I used to always use problem focused coping. Like 99.9% of the time. And it usually served me well, but not always, and certainly not always after my chronic illness snuck up on me. Then I started to use more emotion-focused coping, a totally different coping style. And here’s the thing, I now use both and you probably need to as well. But hold on! What the heck are problem-focused and emotion-focused coping anyway?

Problem-focused coping is typically used for solvable problems, ones that can be fixed, and make the problem go away. For example, if we lose our job due to company restructuring (this happened to me back in the day) then we would use problem-focused coping in order to find another job and make sure we can support ourselves in the meantime.
Emotion-focused coping is what we use when the problem can’t be fixed, and the problem will not go away. It is dealing with emotions that arise from an unfixable problem. Kind of like what happens when you have a chronic illness.
Both of these skills are necessary in life, but the problem is, most of us are taught more about problem-focused coping that emotion-focused.

Problem-focused would be how to get out of the canyon you and your friend went hiking in.

Let’s look at problem-focused in the context of chronic illness or chronic pain. What are some solvable problems or areas in which we would use problem focused coping? Well, lifestyle changes are one area. We are told or we read up on different “diets” or exercise routines or incorporating meditation, etc that will help us with some of our symptoms. Or maybe it’s just taking medication as prescribed. We would use problem-focused coping because lifestyle changes and medication adherence are fixable problems. We’ll likely use SMART goals (specific-measurable/meaningful-attainable/adaptive-relevant/realistic-timebound) or other techniques to make these changes. And, while nothing is a guarantee, there is a lot of evidence supporting that certain lifestyle changes will help with symptoms, essentially “fixing” (I use that term loosely) the problem.

Emotion-focused is more about accepting emotions and pain.

How about emotion focused coping in the context of chronic illness or chronic pain? While, chronic disease distress, anxiety and depression are all common in those of us with chronic illness. Our illnesses likely won’t go away and our emotions – well, we’re meant to have them. So with this I see a lot of acceptance practices being used and needed (here’s a link to one of my favourites). Self-compassion is another area where we are utilizing emotion focused coping (here’s a link to one of those practices). We have to learn to live with difficult emotions that come and go, and difficult sensations, such as pain. If you’re not good at this, I want to normalize it for you – most people aren’t! This is a skill set most people need help with.

It is essential for people with chronic illness to have both types of coping skills.

Who can help you add these skill sets? Well, there are lots of places to go. A counsellor/therapist or health coach is one place. I would say the health coach would help more with problem-focused and therapist with emotion focused (as well as problem-focused). You can also look in the self-help section of your local library or bookstore. Those meditations I linked are another place, and I’ve done a number of episodes on these in my podcast (check out this episode on acceptance for example).

Once you have and start using both types of coping skills, you can start making the most of it!

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