The Meaning of Yoga and How it Can Help Chronic Pain

For those of you who are against yoga, because some random person said to you once, “But have you tried yoga?” when you were telling them about your pain or illness, just stay with me for a second. No one likes unsolicited advice, but I’m guessing that if you’re here, reading this blog post or looking at this blog at all, it’s not really considered unsolicited. There is actually a lot of evidence that yoga can be helpful for pain, and I have personally found a huge difference after beginning to practice restorative yoga at the beginning of the pandemic (circa April 2020 is when I began).

I began my meditation practice a few years before my yoga practice, but became consistent with both around the same time.

Let’s start off by reviewing some of the research as to what yoga can help with and if it actually is beneficial. Guess what? The research is overwhelming a yes, yoga is helpful for chronic pain. There are tons of studies on it but I just picked three for the purpose of this post. Tal, Unrah & Dick (2011) found that pain patients in their study were able to “reframe what it is to live with chronic pain.” What does that mean? Well, not all of there patients actually decreased in the pain itself, but most found that the pain bothered them less. In other words, it was less interfering in their daily lives. Skip ahead to 2019 where Uebelacker et al. found in their study that pain patients who did yoga saw their moods improve, decrease in their anxiety levels and decrease in their pain levels. That same year, Schmid et al. (2019), found that pain patients who engaged in yoga had better occupational performance (they could return to work, do well at work), were more engaged in their regular daily activities, and had less depressive episodes.

I normally practice at home via YouTube, but I do love having an opportunity to do an in-person class, especially if it’s outside.

This research is all well and dandy but the original intent of my post was to look at the meaning of the word “yoga” and how that in itself shows how it can be helpful to us chronic pain warriors. Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which means to unite (or unity). This describes unity between the individual with the universe, person with nature, and importantly, mind with body. This is likely why we see things like mood improvements and decreases in anxiety in people who practice yoga, which is mindful movement. A yogi is someone who is self-realized and self-realization leads to freedom. Linking back to the research, freedom to work, freedom to engage in activities, and freedom from pain being “bothersome.” Finally it’s important to note that health (both physical and mental) is a natural result of practicing yoga, for all of the above reasons. Do you have to practice yoga? No. But I also don’t see the harm in trying (assuming you have consulted with your healthcare team).

I also want to mention that I always modify poses so they are safe and comfortable for me to do.

I hope this brings some insight. Keep making the most of it!

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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

Spoonie Stress

It’s not really a surprise that Spoonies have more stress than healthy folks. Chronic illness and chronic pain warriors just have a lot more to deal with. Coming up with ways to relieve stress is important, and something I try to pay attention to. As stress accumulates it can lead to mental health problems, and quite often, especially with autoimmune diseases, flares. Today I thought we’d focus on some causes of stress and I’ll give some ideas (that work for me) for you to try out to see if they help at all.

Stress is an evolutionary response.

First, I thought we’d start off with a few definitions. The reason I want to give these is that often as a therapist-in-training, I see that people don’t really understand the meanings of the words they use, nor are they aware of the difference appropriate emotional responses and ones that don’t fit the situation.

  • stress – normal, physiological reaction caused by the fight-flight-freeze response in our brains, alerting us that something needs our attention. It’s neither good nor bad, but is a signal telling us that we need to act on something. podcast
  • anxiety – “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (American Psychological Association). Anxiety is also not inherently good or bad. It’s another natural response of the fight-flight-freeze part of our brain. It’s also normal and part of what makes us human. There is no way to be totally free of anxiety. Fear, on the other hand can be extremely protective and it can be easily confused with anxiety. podcast
    • Anxiety disorder: anxiety that is out of proportion with the situation, and is long-lasting and severe can indicate an anxiety disorder. Someone with an anxiety disorder has “recurring, intrusive thoughts or concerns” (APA)
  • depression: an emotional disorder that can include feelings of sadness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and low energy and motivation. Sadness is a common emotion that is important to our functioning. Depression occurs when sadness doesn’t just “go away” on its own. Both anxiety disorders and depression are helped with psychological treatments. blog, podcast
  • trauma – “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea” (APA). I’ve heard this one be misused often, so just be aware of whether you’re actually experiencing trauma. This can also be helped with psychological treatments.
Understanding mental health concepts can be helpful for managing it.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way. What are some common causes of stress in Spoonies?

  • physical symptoms – flares, pain, and basically any other annoying and/or debilitating symptom that comes with your chronic illness. blog
  • medical gaslighting – when a doctor or healthcare professional dismisses your pain and/or symptoms. podcast
  • interpersonal relationships – difficulties with your partner, family, or friends often stemming from a lack of understanding of your illness. blog
  • finances/insurance – even with insurance there is a cost of medications and other treatments that may not be covered or give you as much coverage as you need. blog
Side effect from my hip arthroscopy that definitely caused me some stress.

These are of course, just a few, and you may experience a lot of other stressors depending on your illness and overall life situation. The point out reducing stressors like this is to improve your overall quality of life. So, here are some suggestions that I’ve found to be helpful for each of these (I’m going to link some of my other posts and podcast episodes in case you want more in-depth information).

  • Mindfulness, exercise, sleep, and diet. This means daily practice of whatever way you stay present. Getting whatever type of exercise is accessible during the day (even if it’s a short walk). Practicing good sleep hygiene. And eating as healthy a diet as you can. podcast, podcast, podcast, podcast (yes, one for each of these).
  • Being a self-advocate when it comes to your health and knowing your rights. The medical gaslighting podcast episode I mentioned earlier goes into being a self-advocate. For disability rights check out this podcast.
  • Effective communication and emotional regulation. We can’t control other people but we can definitely control ourselves, even if our emotions are high. podcast
  • Budgeting, budgeting, budgeting. I am without health insurance for the first time in many years. And yes, I live in Canada where healthcare is “Free” (with the exceptions of medications, dentistry, and adjunct care such as physio/chiro/naturopath/massage/etc). Yet I’ve seen the chiropractor twice in the past 3 months (with another appointment today) and gone for a massage. I’ve very meticulously budgeted these in because they are so helpful. The blog post mentioned for finances incorporates budgeting.
There are lots of ways to decrease stress. I enjoy some light exercise in nature.

On top of all this, practicing self-care (podcast) is very helpful. If you don’t like the term “self-care” because it’s been waaaay overused in the media than maybe think of it is as “ways to improve my overall health.” It includes domains of : physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, and work. It is also incredibly helpful in reducing stress levels. I’m going to be hosting a self-care challenge starting on April 24 on the premium blog. To sign up for the challenge it is only $5 and you get 4 weekly premium posts, motivation for the challenge, ideas and help with the challenge, and an opportunity to be featured on the blog and/or podcast! Stay tuned for more!

Until next week Spoonies, keep making the most of it!

Switching Up Routines

Hey Everyone! I decided to join this chronic illness blog linkup thing this month so I’m going to use their writing prompts for a few of my posts. Honestly, I think it can be helpful to use writing prompts from time to time. Not because I ever run out of topics to write about (I doubt that will ever happen) but because it causes me to think differently and even more critically. I decided to start with the topic of “switching” which can be anything that has switched up in our lives.

I recently left my retail job of the past 7 years. I was burnt out, had ongoing issues with a manager, anxiety about working with customers so closely during covid (so many anti-maskers and people just not understanding how to wear masks, and/or socially distance), and I wanted to concentrate on school. I am halfway through my third last course of my Master’s, and my Practicum Application Package is due November 1, so I basically have October to complete it (and trust me it’s huge). So, this means that I’ve had to switch a lot up in my life. But I view change as a good thing, and there are things about this change that can benefit my health.

Can you guess where I worked? Overall I really enjoyed my time there and think it’s a good company.

First of all, my mental health has already benefited because there is one less thing on my plate. And, like I said, it was something that was causing me a lot of stress. My physical health is also benefiting. My labral hip tear was always made worse by standing for 8+ hours straight every day (okay there was a half hour break in there I guess). Now I am able to “switch up” (like what I did there?) whether I’m sitting, standing, walking, stretching, exercising, laying down, as much as I want! My hip pain has already decreased tremendously which is awesome. I will still likely need surgery but I don’t feel as desperate for it at the moment. My health is also benefiting because I have more time to schedule in appointments. I’ve already talked to my chiropractor about more sessions, and I can fit in physio, massage therapy, acupuncture, and psychotherapy much more easily because my time is flexible.

My body rarely ever swells up! My poor finger (the swelling is gone btw, might have been a fluke).

My daily routine is switching up in other ways too. I have more time to focus on my side projects – like this blog, my podcasts (I have two), some other content and merch I want to create. Plus integrating school into the mix, and finding time for other things I love like playing the piano as well. My routine isn’t the same everyday, though there are similarities – like I wake up and exercise or do yoga first thing. Change is a part of life, it is inevitable. Whether change is good or bad we have to embrace it. Yes, for me this change has been good, but even when change is not good (like the loss of my sweet Spike), I know that it is what we do with the change – the free will and choices we have and make – is what is important. I could have just filled my free time playing video games and watching movies (not to say I won’t do any of that) but instead I choose to be productive and creative with this extra time.

I’m literally still so busy that I had to buy myself an actual weekly calendar that I can stare at all day at my desk.

How are you switching things up this month? What changes are you encountering and how are you dealing with them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or via DM on Instagram (@janeversuspain).

Stay safe everyone!

Setting Work Boundaries

When it comes to work, a lot of people have difficulties setting boundaries. For those of us with a chronic illness, it becomes a difficult but necessary part of literally being able to work. Why am I bringing this up today? I have been off of work for the past week because of my hip tear, which seemingly go worse when I (a) accidentally leaned against it at work, and (b) my hip popped out of and back into place when I was doing an elevated pushup. Now I’m set to go back tomorrow but I will probably need some accommodations, because, despite the fact that I felt worse on Monday and now better today, I do a lot to mitigate the pain. The other part of this equation is that work has been so stressful since we fully reopened (limited customers) at the end of May, and I haven’t been able to set boundaries around that, I’ve become more anxious and had a general increase in body pain anyway. Now’s the time to make a change.

61747309117__526F5848-9878-43E7-8344-671D5793945CEven on the beach I had to change positions a million times.

So how do you set work boundaries? I mean, no boss or company wants to have to accommodate for an employee, right? Yet as much as I hate asking, I have seen some managers do it for others, and have had some managers do it for me. Plus, legally in Canada and some other countries, employers can’t discriminate because of (dis)ability. In the past I’ve always approached it with a very direct attitude. This is what I need, this is why I need it, and without it I can’t do my job properly. Direct works best. And when in doubt I have a doctor’s note as well (I currently have a few doctor’s notes in my file with no “expiry” date to them). Plus, I always tell my bosses that I will be flexible when needed (and I have been) because I understand the importance of the business (I work in electronics retail so it’s importance really depends on your own value to it).

32946222992_20a36e2abe_bImage from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/moodlegal/32946222992/

What’s the difference now? Covid-19. As I’ve mentioned, we aren’t through it yet. At my work, we still have 18 staff members not back yet, we let limited customers in the store which is still too many at a time at times, and things are definitely not running as “normal.” What I currently need because of my hip: to be able to change physical positions as needed – sitting, sitting with my legs up, standing, walking, lying down. What I need because of stress: to not be the only person scheduled at customer service where I get long lines and yelled at by customers all day. Here’s the thing, I am scheduled alone at customer service for the next 3 days. The only other person scheduled for my entire department is collecting web orders, so literally nothing to do with directly dealing with customers. Therefore, I can’t just leave my post to change what position I’m in. I will stand for 9 hours with just my 30 minute break. Bad for hip and bad for stress. Do I need to say something? Yes. How will it go? I guess we’ll find out.

IMG_7761Being in nature is helpful for stress. Take a time out every know and then in order to heal.

I’m curious if any of my fellow Spoonies have been back to a work environment yet and what they are doing for boundary setting. This is a time where I wish I could work from home, but wishing isn’t going to make that happen at the moment. Please comment or DM me on Instagram and share your work boundary stories. Stay Safe.