If you think that self-care is all about taking a bubble bath or focusing on eating plenty of leafy greens, you’re not wrong. But, self-care for chronic pain is so much more than that. Here are 19 ideas for self-care for chronic pain that really work.
What is self-care?
There are plenty of misconceptions about what self-care is. Self-care means doing things that bring you to a deeper state of calm and allow you to feel safe, supported, and nourished. It focuses on your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs.
The main myth of self-care for chronic pain is that it has to cost a ton of money—think a day at the spa or expensive facial or massage. This simply isn’t true.
Self-care doesn’t have to take a lot of time, either. Living with chronic pain often still means taking care of a family or heading off to work every day. Nurturing yourself should not add to the burden. It should provide a moment or two in each day when you can slow down, breathe, and focus on supporting yourself.
Of course, if you have the time you can spend an entire day caring for yourself. However, excessive time and money is not necessary to take good care of yourself on a regular basis, and neither guarantees a better experience. The key is to choose what works for you without adding stress or pressure. Self-care for chronic pain should feel like coming home. It should be relaxing and something you look forward to.
Why is self-care for chronic pain so important?
The importance of self-care for chronic pain cannot be underestimated. Studies of patients with chronic conditions found that they only spend 66 minutes out of every year in the presence of their doctor. This means that those living with chronic pain need to be involved and committed to their care the other 525,534 minutes of the year.
Chronic pain and mental health are inextricably linked together as well. Consider the following statistics:
- An estimated 65% of people with depression experience chronic pain
- Another 30 to 50% of chronic pain sufferers also experience clinical depression
- Treatments for chronic pain are often unsuccessful or take longer to work for depressed people
- Ignoring anxiety and other mood disorders often makes chronic pain worse
Self-care for chronic illness recognizes that mental and emotional health can be supported with a few practices that promote an overall feeling of well-being, even when you’re in pain.
19 self-care ideas for chronic pain patients
Because self-care for chronic pain focuses on your own individual physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, what works for someone else may not work for you.
Here are 19 self-care tips if you are living with chronic pain. Take only what you need and leave the rest.
1. Take a walk
We spend our days walking in a hurry to a destination. Self-care for chronic pain walks are much different. Find a trail or a path that wanders through a natural wooded area. It need not be long or strenuous. If walking is difficult, make sure the ground is level and the path has places to rest.
Then slow down. Notice the feeling of the air and the sun on your skin. Breathe deeply. Watch the birds and other creatures. Let yourself be fully present, and don’t worry about how fast or far you travel. Just being outside is therapeutic.
2. Grow something beautiful
If you can’t make it outside, bring the outside inside.
3. Cook delicious food
Nourishment often begins with the food we put into our bodies. You don’t need to be a world-class chef to feed yourself good food. Experiment with new recipes, and keep it simple to start with.
4. “Visit” a museum
Sometimes chronic pain makes leaving the house impossible, but that doesn’t mean you cannot go anywhere. Consider visiting a museum virtually, wandering the halls at your leisure and in your most comfortable clothes.
5. Learn something new
Learning something new might be as simple as picking up a book at the library, or you might decide to take advantage of the hundreds of free classes being offered online by institutions like Harvard and Stanford.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to draw or knit. Perhaps there is a language you’ve always wanted to speak, or a book you’ve been dying to write. When your body hurts, take this opportunity to exercise your mind.
6. Find your breath
Stop here and take a deep breath in. Exhale completely, trying to extend your exhale a little longer than your inhale (don’t force it).
Were you holding your breath? When is the last time you truly breathed deeply?
Breathwork can help your body to calm down. Deep belly breathing, with a longer exhale, stimulates the vagus nerve. This nerve is directly connected to your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Responsible for “rest and digest” functions, the PNS signals your body to relax. This decreases production of stress hormones and promotes calm relaxation.
7. Take a long bath
Not just any long bath. Take the time to set the mood. You don’t need fancy oils or lotions. Epsom salts provide beneficial magnesium, and they are affordable at drug and grocery stores. If you have lavender oil, add a few drops to promote even further relaxation.
Grab your fluffiest bath towel and coziest clothes for after the bath. Light some candles, find some relaxing music, and sink into the water. Close your eyes and enjoy.
Meditation (or meditative prayer) has been long studied as a way to decrease the perception of pain and to promote relaxation. Although it’s hard to discount the placebo effect of meditation, some scientifically-valid studies have found that meditation lowers cortisol (the stress hormone) and provides pain relief to those who practice regularly.
Start with just ten minutes a day. It can help to have a guided meditation to begin with, but if you prefer, simply find a comfortable seat and breathe for ten minutes. Let yourself stay focused on breathing in and out. If your mind wanders, bring it back to following your breath.
9. Create something
Create something. Anything. Consider these creative activities:
- Take pictures
- Create a movie for a friend
- Design a greeting card (and send some letters!)
- Sew something
- Make a sculpture
- Draw a picture
- Write a song
- Develop a new recipe
The act of creating something, especially if it’s an activity you enjoy but have gotten away from, can go a long way towards nurturing your mental health.
10. Practice self-massage
Massage can be a great way to relax and release tight muscles and tension, but we cannot always get this kind of therapy when we need it. Self-massage is a great option instead.
And the good news? You don’t need to actually massage the painful part of your body. Sometimes a great neck massage releases shoulders that have tensed the lower back. You can also use a tennis ball to release the large muscles of the legs and glutes. Deep muscle release and relaxation is available whenever you need it!
11. Listen to music
Our self-care tips wouldn’t be complete without the suggestion of listening to music. In this case, the “savage beast” is chronic pain, and music can be remarkably soothing. Music prompts endorphin release in the brain, a release that researchers have found relieves chronic pain.
Keep a running list of songs you love for days when pain flares. You may also find pre-made chronic pain playlists on Spotify, Apple, and Google.
12. Make a list
Making lists is a great way to reframe what is currently happening and to plan for the future. Consider making a list of:
- The activities you can do at your current pain level
- Activities you’d like to work toward
- The people who support you
- Things to do when you are in physical or mental pain
Lists are a productive way to notice what’s good, to make it through what’s bad, and to plan for what’s next.
13. Practice gratitude
And while we’re on the subject of lists, practicing gratitude (sometimes in the form of a list) is one of the best types of self-care for chronic pain out there.
A gratitude practice improves mental health and keeps you from dwelling on your pain.
Writing is frequently used as a therapeutic exercise to work through grief and trauma, so it makes sense to use it as a type of stress management for chronic pain. Journaling can be an excellent way to process what you are feeling. It also keeps a good record of your pain. Over time, you may be able to see patterns or cycles that can help for prevention.
Not someone to keep a journal? Write a letter to someone you love. Getting mail that’s not bills or junk is a pleasure to the receiver, and the process of writing a letter takes you out of your own pain for a moment.
Adult coloring books have become a meditative way to relieve stress and relax. Why not use them as self-care for chronic pain?
16. Play with a pet
The research on this one is crystal clear: interacting with an animal does remarkable things for mood, heart rate, cortisol production, and stress levels. And it turns out that it doesn’t matter whether you are a dog person or a cat person.
Playing with any pet has beneficial effects on your mood.
17. Head to the water
Isak Dinesen said: “The cure for everything is salt water: sweat, tears, and the sea.”
Even if you don’t have an ocean handy and are all cried out (and too much in pain to exercise), water can be a marvelous way to relax and feel better. Head to your local pool (or float tank) to feel a welcome sense of weightlessness and the calm that feeling can bring you.
If you are feeling more active and want to move, swimming is an excellent low-impact, full-body exercise that improves mood, increases circulation, and is available to anyone at any fitness level.
18. Stick with a routine
Of all of the options for self-care for chronic pain, this one might be a little boring. But sticking to your daily routine as much as possible (brushing your teeth, getting dressed, getting the kids off to school) gives you the mental boost that pain hasn’t won.
You may move a little more slowly, and you may need to rest, but following your normal day as much as you can may help you realize that you do have a say in how you manage your own pain.
19. Visit friends (IRL or virtually)
Pain makes it easy to withdraw into yourself, to shrink away from family and friends who love you. Resist the urge if you can and reach out. Invite a friend for tea or go have a picnic in the park. A low-stress social outing with a good friend helps you realize that you are not alone. Don’t want to meet in person? Schedule a Zoom or FaceTime call to catch up.
If you cannot find a friend to meet with in person, a chronic pain support group can help, too. Taking the time to engage with the world, even online, makes you feel more connected—a positive thing for pain relief.
Learn more about living with pain
Living with chronic pain requires extraordinary courage. The more you know about your condition (and your many different treatment options), the easier it is to take good care of yourself. Follow our blog for articles, research roundups, and curated lists of treatment tools to learn more about living with pain.
Self-care for chronic pain won’t take away the pain, but a pain specialist can help. Find a pain specialist in Arizona or Texas by clicking the button below or look for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.