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January 18, 2020

Self-care looks different when you're chronically ill

Self-care has turned from a buzzword into a $450 billion-dollar industry. There are millions of products and services promoting their self-care benefits to the point where the self-care and consumerism have become one. Trust me, however, “Treat yoself!” is not a form of self-care.

For people who wrestle with chronic pain, self-care is essential. It’s not a face mask you pick up at the drugstore, either. I mean, face masks are great and #SkincareGoals and all are fine, but we’ve turned self-care from a necessity to a term that benefits wellness companies. I’m tired of it all, because when you’re in chronic pain the last thing you need is an influencer dropping a bath bomb on their Instagram stories and calling it “self-care.”

The blunt truth is chronically ill people need self-care to survive. It’s not a little pick-me-up or an act of self-indulgence. We have to remember to take our meds, rest and even shower. While I do enjoy a nice massage or fresh haircut, these things won’t help my chronic condition – migraines – or my wallet.

Here are a few ways self-care looks much different for those of us who are wrestling with chronic pain:


People with chronic illnesses are flaky and you have to deal with it. We are unreliable because our health is unreliable. It’s not our fault, but we often feel like it is. An act of self-care is recognizing that you are not a bad person for canceling plans to rest, especially when you need energy for something else. If you work full time and struggle with a chronic illness, preserving yourself for your job or any other necessary life functions is crucial. Those who love you will understand that you have to prioritize just to get through each day. We don’t like canceling plans or letting people down, but it’s part of our realities.


If you’ve never lived with a chronic illness or chronic pain, it can be difficult to understand that showering and brushing your teeth can be agonizing. When your entire body hurts, crawling from the bed (or couch, depending on your preference) is a Herculean effort. Listen, we know taking care of our personal hygiene will help us feel better, but we also have to drum up the effort and motivation to make that happen. When your pain gets bad to the point where just opening your eyes hurts, then you’ll understand.


This one is tough. Sleep can be near impossible during a pain flare-up, which is why it’s so important to try to keep to a schedule. I know how hard that sounds, but here’s what I have done. From May until October 2019, I frequently experienced stress-induced chronic pain flare ups and reworked my sleep routine to help my body. One change I made that still helps today is taking melatonin an hour before my bedtime. I know melatonin doesn’t work for everyone, but it helps me sleep soundly. I also found a few 10-minute guided meditations for sleep that I keep in rotation. When I meditate, my muscles release some tension, which can help lower pain before bedtime. I was a meditation skeptic before, but it has really helped me to lower stress and relax my muscles. I say it’s worth a shot.


Getting proper exercise can be tricky when you’re in chronic pain. Physical activity is important, but equally important is understanding how much your body can take. I went from running long distances to doing YouTube yoga on my living room floor because my chronic pain got worse. Do I like that I’m so limited? Not at all, but it’s my reality right now and I have to accept that I have an uphill battle in front of me. Through these yoga videos, I have found exercise that is easy on my body. Shoutout to Adriene from Yoga with Adriene for creating yoga videos that specifically address certain pain areas. I highly recommend her videos, as they are gentle and simple to do at home.


Keeping yourself on your meds is one of the most important forms of self-care. Whether it’s a prescription or supplement, take it! Missing a day or two of medication can hurt your body and prevent it from running smoothly. When dealing with chronic pain, it can be difficult to keep on top of your medication. Minutes, hours and days melt into each other during a bad flare up, so I recommend setting an alarm, creating a calendar reminder or anything that helps get those meds in your body.


Before I go do something I think about all the potential triggers involved. Will I have to walk far? Is there alcohol involved? What’s the noise level? I have to consider all these things before I make plans because I don’t want to be stuck in bed the next day. This can be challenging for people to understand and I don’t blame them. I don’t expect everyone to know all my triggers. I just need them to know there are situations where a trigger may pop up and to understand it’s not personal if I have to turn something down, whether it be an event, food or alcohol.

The Monthly Migraine is a series dedicated to migraine awareness and support. If you suffer from chronic migraines, you are not alone and we hope to amplify your voice through these pieces. Lindsay Patton-Carson can be reached on Twitter @LindsayPatton.

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