Twenty percent of American adults deal with chronic pain, and it is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care. But chronic pain goes beyond the pain itself. The mental stress of dealing with being highly uncomfortable on the daily can impact mood, too. In fact, chronic pain has been linked to higher-than-usual rates of anxiety and depression in sufferers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The good news? It’s still possible to keep a positive mindset even when discomfort is a regular part of life—you might just have to work at it. These four women who live with chronic pain share how they cope, and how they keep their health struggle from impacting their mood. Their tips might just help you, too!
“Be honest with loved ones to get the support you need.”
Xomeka Harrell was just 17 when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy joints, tissues, and organs. Symptoms can include pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints.
Harrell, now 39, knows the symptoms well. “Rheumatoid arthritis impacts my daily life often,” she says. “At any given moment, I can have swollen fingers, ankles, and knees.” Even something as simple as a rainy day can cause Harrell’s elbow to swell.
To help her mood, Harrell says she relies on regular exercise. She works out on a Peloton bike in the morning and, afterward, she says, “I just feel mentally ready to conquer my day.” She’s also been to therapy. “You can just let out all your feelings, unapologetically,” she says. “Therapy has helped me to think about the positives vs. the pain.”
Harrell says she also tries to be as honest as possible with her husband about how she’s feeling and what she needs. “Nobody really understands what it’s like to have a chronic illness,” she says. “But I’m in pain every day. Being honest with my family and saying, ‘I don’t feel good today’ helps me get the support I need—and it helps me feel better.”
“Don’t compare yourself to others.”
Chelsea Sherman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight years ago when she was 20. Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Symptoms can vary, but often include fatigue, numbness or tingling, walking difficulties, and muscle spasms.
Sherman, 28, struggles with fatigue and tinnitus, a constant ringing in her ears. Stress can exacerbate MS symptoms, and Sherman says she exercises regularly to try to combat tension in her life. She also says she journals regularly, “sometimes for just 10 minutes, sometimes for hours on end.” This helps her channel her feelings and get out her frustrations which can do wonders for her mood.
While her disease can be unpredictable, Sherman says she makes a point to focus on what she can control. So, she tries to eat a healthy diet, work out regularly, and find “peace of mind through gratitude.” Sherman says she also tries to surround herself with supportive people to help lift her up on harder days.
Mindset is important, Sherman says. “Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s an uphill battle that will rarely leave you feeling good,” she says. “Redirect your energy to reaching your own goals.”
“Come up with solutions for your symptoms.”
E. Siegel doesn’t have just one chronic condition—she has five, including the chronic muscular pain disorder myofascial pain syndrome, and endometriosis, a painful disorder in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside the uterus. “There are a lot of things going on at one time. So, there are some good-ish days and some really crappy ones,” she says.
As a result of her conditions, Siegel struggles with stress and anxiety which tend to worsen her pain.To cope, Siegal has a “toolkit” that helps her feel more prepared when issues surface that may trigger mental distress. “I have come up with solutions for nearly every symptom and that in it of itself really helps,” she says. “I know when I have x symptom, I have x, y, and z product, medication, or strategy to help.”Another thing she’s found helpful: dialing back her commitments. “When I’m feeling overwhelmed or stressed, I’ll look at my schedule and try to cancel/reschedule things, and create breaks for myself and try to take a nap or go to sleep early.”
Siegel also has an emotional support dog named Piper. “She has been wildly helpful for my mental health,” Siegel says. “She forces me to go on walks in the woods every day. If I’m having a bad day and feel like crying, she’s right there beside me, generally looking ridiculous and can make me laugh in the middle of a breakdown.”
“Schedule time for self-care.”
It took Ashley Nicole six years after she started developing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis to get a formal diagnosis. Nicole, 37, has symptoms mostly in her hands and wrists in the form of pain, swelling, and stiffness. “The pain is always there,” she says. “However, some days it’s more present than others.”
As a personal trainer and founder of RA Warrior Fitness, Nicole’s symptoms can make everyday life—and work—challenging. “There are still a few things that are difficult for me such as removing a lid from a jar, utilizing grinder seasonings while cooking, and excessive chopping of veggies for meal prep,” she says. Nicole says her symptoms can also be unpredictable. “Living with rheumatoid arthritis means you never know how you will feel from one day to the next,” she says. “Some days are better than others.”
Nicole’s symptoms are aggravated by stress and extreme weather changes, and she relies on good self-care to help keep her mindset positive—and her symptoms to a minimum. “Exercising—especially outdoors—and getting massages really helps to keep me sane,” she says. While the massages feel good on their own, Nicole says actually looking forward to getting one helps boost her mental health. “Scheduling a massage or some other self-care activity that gives you something to look forward to is important to keep a healthy balance,” she says.
Nicole says she especially relies on religion to help her stay positive, despite the pain. “I believe that having a strong prayer life and relationship with the Lord is key to making it through any and everything,” she says.
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