Staying active when you deal with chronic pain

Contributed by Lizzie Braiks-Rinker from Donuts & Downdog

Like many of those of us lucky enough to be on the chronic pain train, I experience chronic pain in a few different ways. I have interstitial cystitis (also known as painful bladder syndrome, sexy!) as well as chronic back and neck pain from a car accident in 2017.

Ever since I popped out of the womb I have been the kind of human that thrives on activity. If I don’t sweat I feel like I’m losing my mind. I’ve always wrapped up my identity in what my body was able to do: yogi, runner, rower, lifter, etc. I like being able to move. Chronic pain doesn’t always allow for that to happen. Today I want to share my favorite tips and tricks for staying active with chronic pain.

Spoiler: listening to your body and being kind to yourself is non-negotiable!

Be honest about how your pain impacts your life. When I first started dealing with chronic pain I, understandably, was pretty angry. I leaned into my anger about how unfair the whole situation was (which, BTW, you are completely allowed to do) but stopped paying attention to what was going on in my body. I focused on all of the things that I couldn’t do instead of the things that I was still able to do even during high pain days.

Since getting into mindfulness I started to realize the ebbs and flows of my pain. Once I realized those ebbs and flows, I realized how I could work with them. So, for instance, when I felt a flare was coming on and knew I wouldn’t be able to workout for a few days - I would try to make it to a yoga class. When I felt a flare lightening up I would go for a quick jog. Understanding what was happening in my body gave me some of my power pack, and also gave me back the parts of my routine that I could still hold onto during the bad days.

I’m really big on journaling, so for me it’s helpful to understand the triggers for my pain, the length of time that it is likely to impact me, the trajectory of what my emotions do, and all that jazz. I have friends that have made spreadsheets, take notes on a calendar, or have a list in their phone. Do what works best in your brain and in your lifestyle, but begin understanding how your pain impacts your life. Chronic pain, as we know, doesn’t always operate rationally and that’s OK. Identify the information that you can work with.

Take full advantage of the good days. Once you begin to understand your chronic pain it also becomes a lot easier to know when you are having a really good day. Even if my motivation is nonexistent, I try to fit in some sort of activity on a good day because I know that, for myself, if I don’t I will be super upset with myself after. I’m absolutely not saying that you need to run a marathon on the days when you aren’t in pain. That sounds… truly terrible. Also, I’m pretty sure that would just put you in more pain.

What I am saying is that when you feel good - embrace it. Do a yoga video. Pop in to a quick boxing class. Make time to go on a light hike with a friend. Use your good days to move in a way that will make you feel amazing, won’t cause your symptoms to flare, and will leave you feeling like yourself again.

Experiment with different modalities. Before I got in my car accident I did all yoga, all the time. Once I was able to move again I immediately ran back to my mat, only to find that yoga made my neck and back injuries completely worse and would leave me in debilitating pain for hours if not days after. Fun times! I realized that upper body stuff just wouldn’t work for me, so I started looking for activities that were mainly lower body. I walked into a spin class (something I used to swear I would never like) and immediately fell in love! After weeks of being stuck on a cough, hopping on a spin bike and turning into a sweat monster was refreshing AF. Realizing that I liked spin inspired me to try out a ton of other fitness styles I had initially written off as “not for me”.

When you can’t be active, recover. Recovery can look different for you every day. Sometimes it means that I take a long bath with epsom salts and a good book. Some days it might mean that I do some light stretching while I watch TV. On the days where my body just literally can’t even but I still feel inclined to be active, I study up. I might read about nutrition, watch videos on correct form for a lift or yoga pose that I’m working on, or archive a few workouts that I want to try. This makes me feel like I’m still being active and keeps me from wallowing.

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