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!

3 Ways to Reduce Rumination, Worry, and Attachment to Self Stories

Have you ever found yourself caught up in thoughts about the past? What life was like before your chronic illness/pain? Ruminating over and over about that old life… What about thoughts about the future? Worrying about what will happen to you and how your health will affect you, maybe even getting worse? Perhaps you are also really fused with the idea that you are just a sick person now and that is all your life will be. These are all common thought processes when you have a chronic illness or chronic pain. I’ve certainly dealt with these before. The problem with this dominance of the conceptualized past or future, or the conceptualized self, is that it often takes us away from living right now. It makes life worse. It increases suffering.

Rumination and worry are like the fog. Can you come back to the present?

I remember having the thought that I don’t want to suffer any longer. This was in the fall of 2016. My very recent ex blamed me for all the things that were wrong in the relationship because of WHO I was. What I quickly came to realize was that I was ruminating and worrying and fused with having an autoimmune disease. We didn’t break up because of who I was (trust me there were a lot of other issues that didn’t stem from me at all). However, the dominance of my thought processes wasn’t helping me at all. It was taking me away from the life I wanted to live and away from the person I wanted to be.

The Conceptualized Past & Future
I don’t think that being able to reflect on our pasts or contemplate our futures is inherently problematic. Our brains have evolved to be able to do this. Initially to keep us safe and alive. We just don’t run into as many instances of life-and-death situations anymore. When we excessively focus on the past, or ruminate, we tend to feel overwhelmed and depressed. When we excessively focus on the future, or worry, we tend to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Both anxiety and sadness can increase pain and set of flares for those of us with autoimmune disease, which in turn tends to lead to more sadness and/or anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.

The Conceptualized Self
We all have stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like who we are, where we came from, and why we act the ways we do, essentially why we are the way we are right now. Often being sick or in pain is a large part of this story. The problem with these stories is that while they do contains some objective facts, they are also chalk full of our own subjective interpretations. When we are really fused with these stories about ourselves, we forget that life is constantly changing, most of it is not predictable, and we can also create change for ourselves. And yep, I know this is really hard to grasp when you have a chronic illness.

Why we need to contact the present moment
We we are stuck in the past or future, and when we dwell on our stories about ourselves, we are definitely not experiencing the here-and-now. The benefits of being present are plentiful, including the ability to gain more self-knowledge and self-awareness, enjoying our experiences more, feeling less pain (emotional and physical), and being more flexible in our interpretations of ourselves and of life. I meditate daily because it helps me become more present (and it took me so long to get into a daily routine). I also notice myself being able to come back to the present much faster throughout the day, even when I notice physical pain.

How do we counteract rumination, worry, and attachment to our self stories?

  • Mindfulness – it can be meditation, but really mindfulness means contacting the present moment, being here-and-now. So it can also be yoga, or mindful walking or eating. It can be fully engaging in an activity. It can be noticing your thoughts/feelings/sensations and then coming back to the present by noticing your feet on the floor. It can be many, many things, but it is always: being curious, open and nonjudgmental about your present moment experiencing. Check this out.
  • Noticing Self – the idea that there is a part of us that can step back and notice. Like the sky and the weather. The sky always has room for the weather. Even when the weather is thunderstorms and hurricanes, the sky is not bothered by it because eventually the weather changes. We can use this same part of ourselves, to just step back and watch our experiences without being swept away. It’s a safe place that just notices. This is particularly helpful for attachment to our conceptualized self.
    Check this out.
  • Creating Distance Between Ourselves and Our Thoughts – we can’t stop our minds from thinking, but we can notice when our thoughts are unhelpful and learn to let them pass like leaves on a stream. The more distance we can create, the more psychological flexibility we can have in order to return to the present. Check this out.

I know that was a lot of information! I’m a big believer in seeking help from a mental health professional in your area if you are really struggling with your mental health. Many people with chronic illness, chronic pain, TBI, etc. find it hard to cope on their own. One of the best things I ever did was go to therapy. I learned a lot of skills to help me cope and felt I had nonjudgmental support as I continued down this path we call life. And on that note, keep making the most of it!

Video: You are Like the Sky…

Videos by: Pressmaster, Roman Odintsov, The Element, and Taryn Elliott at Pexels.

The idea here is that we can develop this “noticing self” or the part of us that can truly just observe our experiences without them taking control of us. I think that I’ve gotten pretty good at this over the years, to the point where not only do I not get swept away, but I am also just curious about my thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc. If you want to try the meditation I mention in the video, check it out here.

In the meantime, keep on making the most of it!

How to Cope With Colds & Chronic Illness

It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint… No, just kidding. But it has been at least 2.5 years (possibly longer) since I had the common cold. Clearly the social distancing and masks and everything not only helped protect me from Covid (which I have managed to avoid thus far) but also the cold, flu and everything else. Then, on May 2, I caught a cold. Sore throat and all. And it was pretty bad. For me, it’s worse because of one of my chronic illnesses.

Life with chronic illness.

Getting any kind of additional illness usually sucks when you have a chronic condition. Example, if you have an autoimmune disease and you’re on immunosuppressants, that can also make you much more vulnerable to more severe illness and symptoms. It’s one of the reasons most people I know with chronic conditions have been so careful during the pandemic. Lucky for me, I’m not on immunosuppressants (I take antimalarials) so I don’t have to worry as much about that part, but still. What I do have that makes catching a cold particularly rough for me is glaucoma. Glaucoma is a degenerative eye disease that can eventually lead to blindness (luckily there are amazing treatments so the chances of going blind if caught early and treated are fairly small). My paternal grandmother had glaucoma and was virtually blind by the time she died. Both of my parents have glaucoma. And when I was 29 I was diagnosed with glaucoma, which is incredibly young (most people are 50+ when they develop it). The leading feature of glaucoma is high eye pressure.

So on May 2, before I started having cold symptoms, I actually happened to have an appointment with my new ophthalmologist. My eye pressure was pretty good and there was no degeneration. He actually made two comments that I found quite funny. First, “You are extremely near-sighted.” Yes, I know (that’s literally how I responded too). He actually informed me about possibilities of retinal tears, and what to look out for. His second funny comment, “Well, I guess we’ll be seeing you from now until indefinitely.” Yep, pretty much true. So, why is catching a cold worse when you have glaucoma. Well, over-the-counter cold medications actually increase your eye pressure. Therefore, I can’t take cold meds (other than cough drops).

Okay, so what happens to me when I can’t take cold meds and have a bad cold is that I get extremely wimpy. Basically life sucks for a few days. Unless I catch myself in these thought patterns, which is what I did recently. I know that “this sucks” and “everything is terrible” thoughts leads to more negative mental and physical health outcomes. It increases body aches and pains, it can keep me sick longer, and it can make me feel depressed (and there’s lots of research out there to back all of this – just type a few key words into Google Scholar and you’ll find it). To be effective I had to “manage my mind” (which is a phrase a life coach who’s podcast I listen to uses). I notice the thoughts, place them on a leaf and let them go. Or I notice and name the thoughts or name the story my thoughts are trying to tell me to create some distance. And then I take comfort in pleasurable activities that I can do. For example, I love movies and being sick is an excuse to watch them. But I don’t just pick any movie. I have some favourites that I used to watch all the time as a kid when I was sick… and then continued to watch into my adulthood when I’m sick. My favourite is Jurassic Park. So that’s what I did. I created distance between myself and my thoughts, acknowledged any emotions I was experiencing, made some tea and watched JP.

The other thing I did recently that was helpful, was talk to my ND about natural cold remedies. Now, I’m lucky in that I work at the same office as my ND (we actually share a room, just work on different days), so for me it’s a quick text and I realize that’s not the case for everyone. But if you see a naturopath, it’s worth asking about. Here are some suggestions she gave me for the common cold (sinus and cough):

  • Vitamin C: amount can depend on your bowel tolerance – I bought the chewables and used about 3g per day.
  • NAC supplement – I think you have to go to a natural health store to find these. I didn’t try them this time, but I’m keeping it in mind for the future.
  • Peppermint tea – which I love anyway, and interestingly it’s the only type of tea she recommended
  • Eucalyptus inhale: basically boiling water with some essential oils and inhaling with a towel over your head – I found this extremely helpful
  • wet stock treatment – I did not try this because my feet hate the cold, but apparently it is very effective.

Alas, I survived my first cold in 2.5 years and realized that the best things for me to do is use some natural remedies paired with some psychological coping skills. If you’re like me and unable to take cold medication, I hope this helps you to keep making the most of it!

Video: Different Ways of Thinking About Chronic Pain & Illness

This is a metaphor I found at this website. I love what the writer of it did here. It’s an alternative to spoon theory, where the biggest different is that spoon theory only focuses on energy, and this metaphor – a knight in battle worn armour – looks at all aspects of having chronic pain/illness. At the end of the day, you can prefer whichever metaphor you do, but I like to bring some psychoeducation and alternative methods of thinking to you, because I like when they are brought to me! Stay strong and keep making the most of it!

Why You Should Be Curious & Nonjudgmental About Your Illness

Curiosity and nonjudgmental awareness are important tools for healing when you have a chronic illness. I’m not saying, cure the illness, but rather to increase our pain tolerance, decrease our stress levels, and heal from any associated wounds from our illness. This becomes even more important if you have a trauma background, which as we know from all the research on the subject, is very common when you have a chronic illness. Myself included in that statement, “little t” trauma that lasted for 5 years in elementary and junior high, something I initially scoffed at as possibly being considered trauma until I learned more about what trauma is, and how it has contributed to my current health. I didn’t process any of it until I was an adult, seeking psychotherapy for pain and stress, and it eventually came out because I was having difficulties in adult friendships… all stemming back to the “little t” trauma from my childhood (let me know if you want more information on little t and big t trauma, I’ve written about them before but can again).

What should we be curious and nonjudgmental about?

I mean a part of me just wants to say EVERYTHING! Because there are definitely huge advantages to approaching life this way. However, it is completely unrealistic to think we could experience life this way all the time. We’re human and it’s totally normal to make judgments (evolutionarily, it helped our species stay alive!) When it comes to chronic illness there are 4 things I think are really important to be curious and nonjudgmental about (this is, as always, based on my own lived experience as well as what I’ve seen in clinical practice).

  1. Our Thoughts – even the ones that are “judging” in the first place. Can you notice your thoughts without thinking about them or getting swept away by them? I find it interesting to see not only the content of my thoughts but also how they come and go, with some being more sticky than others.
  2. Our Emotions – like our thoughts, they tend to come and go, but typically can stick around for longer periods of time. Not only should we explore what we are feeling, but where we are feeling it in our bodies. All emotions have related sensations. What can we notice about them by just sticking to the facts?
  3. Our Behaviours – why do we do the things we do? It’s fascinating to notice how I act in certain ways or do certain things and how that changes with time or on a different day. It’s equally as fascinating to observe how my behaviours change when my thoughts and feelings are in different states.
  4. Our Sensations – not only the ones associated with our emotions, but all the sensations in our bodies – hunger, fatigue, pain. Noticing the quality, where it is, what it feels like, even what we imagine it looks like.

How can we become more curious and nonjudgmental?

There are a lot of ways we can learn to become curious and nonjudgmental. I think of myself as being a curious child, discovering something new for the first time, and approaching whatever it is – thought, emotion, behaviour or sensation – just in that way. But I’ll be more specific:

  • Describe it – using only facts, not your interpretations or judgments. Here is anxiety. Here is a sharp sensation in my leg. Here is a worry thought.
  • Notice and Name it – I am noticing the thought that… or I’m noticing the feeling of…
  • Send your breath into it – rather than judge the sensation or emotion as good or bad, see if you can just pause and send your breath to the area of you feel it the most, giving it some room.
  • Practice meditation – in meditation all you’re really doing is noticing your experience as it comes and goes. This can be a good way to learn to interact with your thoughts, feelings and behaviours nonjudgmentally because the whole point is to be open and nonjudgmental. Check this one out.
  • Do a body scan – this is another way to really be open to any feelings and sensations present in your body. We often notice that the intensities change and that sensations do often come and go. Find a short version here.
  • Offer yourself some kindness – it’s so easy to be harsh and judgmental about your experience. Kind self-talk or kind self-touch can be useful to counteract what our minds are doing. Check out this kind hand exercise.

It can be hard to think that things can get better, but I’ve had the first-hand experience of my life improving from doing these kinds of practices and really just changing my experience of life. I hope this helps you to keep making the most of it!

What Can We Control When We Have a Chronic Illness?

Here’s how I see it: in my life there are things that are out of my control. No matter what I do, I cannot change them. And then there are things in my life that are totally within my control, and I do what I can to change them. Seems pretty simple, right? Well, yes and no. There is this concept in psychology called ‘locus of control’ that has been vigorously studied. It basically describes how people make sense of different influences on their life. There are two types of locus of control. The first is internal, in which we believe what happens to us is caused by our own actions. The second is external, in which we believe that what happens to us is caused by outside forces. Would you believe that having a high internal locus of control is helpful? Especially for those of us with chronic illness or pain? Well, that’s what the research says…

There have been a ton of studies showing that people with high internal locus of control tend to have better health habits overall, are more likely to be screened and tested for health conditions, and actually have better mental health after being diagnosed with an illness. Janowski et al. (2013) found this was the case across chronic health conditions in their study. According to a study by Brown et al. (2018), people with high external locus of control have a lower quality of life, in their study on cancer patients. The great thing is, this is information we can utilize to make our lives better with our chronic illnesses. But how, you might ask?

I want you to take a moment and ask these questions to yourself. What do I have most control over in my life? What do I have the least control over?
We often focus on things that are not in our control, such as the behaviour of others, actually getting an illness, and our difficult thoughts and feelings that are associated with all of this (and are an important part of being human). When we focus on these things we end up feeling helpless, hopeless, angry, anxious, guilty, sad, and so on (the struggle switch). We get stuck on these stories of “if I wasn’t sick my life would be good” or “my life will be great when I’m not in pain anymore, and will be miserable until that day comes.” This is common when you have an illness or a severe injury (like a concussion for example). The problem is, we don’t know if or when we will ever be without our illness or pain or injury, etc.

I didn’t have control over getting sick, nor can I stop my thoughts and feelings from occurring (they’re part of being human).

What we can do instead is start focusing our time and energy on what is in our control, such as our actions/behaviours/whatever you want to call it. Self-empowerment is one of those now almost silly terms that was hijacked by the self-help life coach world, but essentially, having a high internal locus of control and then taking control of what we can is the epitome of self-empowerment. The better health behaviours we have = the better quality of life we have (even with illness and pain).

What can we do to take control?

  • Unhook from our difficult thoughts and feelings – try this or this.
  • Connect with our values to determine how we want to act even with the challenges that we face – listen to this.
  • Take action, behaving like the sort of person we want to be, so that we can live the sort of life we want to live – listen to this.
I can take control over my actions and lead a values-based life.

If you currently have a high external locus of control and a low internal one, this switch might be difficult to do. You may need the extra support of a psychotherapist/counsellor, and you will definitely want to give yourself patience, time, and kindness. We all have the opportunity to live a great life, regardless of our health status, so let’s see if this helps us make the most of it!

Video: When Our Thoughts, Feelings & Sensations Hook Us

“Soul Surrender” composed by Music of Wisdom – licensed from http://www.meditationmusiclibrary.com

This video is meant for psychoeducation only. Please consult appropriate healthcare/mental healthcare professionals as required. When we have difficult and painful thoughts, feelings and sensations, we can easily get swept away from them, as they pull us from what’s important to us and how we’d like to be. We can also learn to effectively manage ourselves when these thoughts, feelings and sensations arise.

Keep making the most of it!

Support my content on Patreon.

Daily Mindfulness: Leaves on a Stream

This meditation can help us distance ourselves from our thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, or memories. The point is not to get rid of these, but to create some space so we can go on with our lives. This meditation is helpful for anxiety, depression, substance use, chronic pain, and other physical and mental health conditions.

“Deep Into Nature” composed by Music of Wisdom – Licensed from http://www.meditationmusiclibrary.com

For more of my guided meditations, relaxation exercises, grounding techniques, and acceptance practices, check out my YouTube channel: Kelsey L Harris Meditations.

Keep making the most of it!

Expressive Writing for Health & Mental Health

I love writing (hello, this is a blog after all) and I’ve always found it to be helpful for me in my own life (and health) journeys (that and music). I came across some research on the mental and PHYSICAL health benefits of expressive writing, so I did a bit more digging and damn, we should all be doing more of it! And hopefully, this post will inspire you to do some. Hearing that there are mental health benefits is probably less shocking than that there are physical health benefits to expressive writing, so we’ll start there, but before we get into that, let’s quickly establish what expressive writing is. Expressive writing is simply writing about our deepest thoughts and feelings about an event or situation, without holding back. When people do this, it is often through journaling, and is often free-writing, without too much thinking about it. It can be done on the computer or by hand, really whatever you prefer. The leading pioneer in this research is Pennebaker (too many articles to site them all), but I’ll site some of the other research on the subject (which also references him) at the end of the post.

Buying a journal (or using an online one) can get you in expressive writing mode.

Okay, so the mental health benefits:

  • reduces stress
  • reduces symptoms of depression
  • reduces post-traumatic symptoms
  • improves mood
  • improves focus and concentration – including in people with ADHD
  • improves working memroy
  • improves emotion regulation (which is our ability to control the quality, frequency, intensity and duration of our emotional responses to situations)
  • and it increases our self-awareness
Improve your mood!

If these aren’t good enough reasons to do some expressive writing, then maybe the physical health benefits will convince you:

  • decreases the number of doctor’s visits you’ll have
  • reduces the number of days spent in the hospital
  • reduces the overall number of hospitalizations – i.e., people with cystic fibrosis
  • reduces blood pressure
  • reduces chronic pain – i.e., cancer and chronic pain conditions
  • reduces the severity of inflammatory conditions – i.e., rheumatoid arthritis, lupus (SLE)
  • improves immune functioning – i.e., cancer, HIV
  • improves lung functioning – asthma
  • improves liver functioning
  • improves and speeds up post-operative recovery
  • improves overall physical well-being

And then, if that’s still not enough for you, there are some other general benefits:

  • reduced number of “sick” days from work plus faster return to work if you were layed off
  • increased GPA in university students
  • improved sporting performance in athletes
Even improve sporting performance! Me and some friends after a curling tournament in 2019.

Okay, so how does this all work? I mean, I understand how it can improve some of the mental health problems we may experience, because we’re writing about our thoughts and feelings. But how does it improve our physical health? Well, actually the two are related. Remember that stress has a HUGE impact on our physical health, and the mind and body are connecting, meaning that anxiety and depression can also feed into (and trauma can cause) physical health problems. The processes of expressive writing are as follows:

  • it allows for cognitive processing and restructuring of painful events and situations – cognitive restructuring changes how we perceive emotional stressors (both internal and external)
  • it allows for repeated exposure – which is controlled re-experiencing of events and situations so that they have less influence over our minds and behaviours

Improving our bodies, improves our minds and vice versa. Here’s the podcast episode on it.

How do we engage in expressive writing? According to the experts we need to write about our deepest thoughts and feelings, without holding back, about situations or events or really anything relevant to us at this moment that are painful. This could be anything from having cancer, to spending time in the hospital to going through a traumatic event. When we sit down to write, it should be for 15-20 minutes at time, without stopping, and be done on 4 consecutive days. Just doing that is enough to lead to all the benefits I listed earlier. It’s possible that more consistent writing could have more improvements, but I honestly didn’t find much on that. So, I’m curious, who’s going to try out some of this expressive writing to see if it helps?

Me! Me! I like health & well-being!

I want to remind everyone that in addition to this blog, if you’re looking for more information to improve your health, I have a podcast: Chronically Living and how to make the most of it, which is available on Apple, Spotify and everywhere else you get podcasts, including this web link. I also have a YouTube channel for those of you looking to incorporate more mindfulness as it has a number of benefits for your physical and mental health as well: Kelsey L Harris Meditations.
Until next week, keep making the most of it!

References:

Baikie, K.A., & Wilhelm, . (2018). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. https://doi.org/10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Lepore, S-J., Greenberg, M.A., Bruno, A., Smyth, J.M. (2002). Expressive writing and health: Self-regulation of emotion-related experience, physiology and behaviour. In S.J. Lepore & J.M. Smyth (Eds), The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (p. 99-117). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10451-005
Stanton, A.L., Danoff-burg, S., & Huggins, M.E. (2002). The first year after breast cancer diagnosis: Hope and coping strategies as predictors of adjustment. Psycho-Oncology, 11(2), 93-102. https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.574