Emily A. Ludwig, PsyD
Picture this…your entire family, sitting around the kitchen table, all warm and snuggly, drinking hot cocoa. Everyone is smiling and laughing as your kids take turns talking about how they love spending time at home with you. You’ve got chocolate chip cookies in the oven and a pot of homemade soup on the stove. You really don’t feel much pain right now, even in places that typically hurt in the afternoon. Even the cat is purring and the dog is wagging her tail…don’t you wish this family isolation thing could go on forever?
The reality probably is more like this…you’re exhausted from trying to home school, feed and entertain your kids. You may have also worked from home all day. Your spouse is cranky and just as tired as you are. The kids are miserable, lonely and whiny. You’re running out of toilet paper. Even the dog and cat are fighting. Your pain level is through the roof and it seems like it has been much worse since the self-quarantine began. What’s going on here?
Pain is complex and it can be worsened or improved, depending on many contributing factors. Here are some factors known to exacerbate pain:
- Stress – What does the Coronavirus cause, besides a fever, cough and headache? Stress and plenty of it. Acknowledge the stress and give yourself a break. We’re all doing everything we can to get by in this unprecedented time, so order pizza, let the laundry wait, unplug from social media and the news and get in a bubble bath. Allow yourself and your family some freedom. Let your kids watch Frozen for the umpteenth time, don’t whine if your spouse stays in the garage puttering for hours on end. We all deal with stress in different ways and that’s okay. Click for tips on reducing your stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Fatigue/Lack of Sleep – All the stress and worry have you so keyed up, you are finding it difficult to sleep. The pain makes you so tired, but you can’t sleep because you hurt. It’s a vicious cycle. Make time for yourself, exercise daily, establish or get back to a sleep regimen (turn off electronics for two hours before bed, take a soothing bath or shower, use lavender essential oils, listen to a meditation or soft music) and only get in bed for sleeping and sex. Put the kids to bed at a reasonable hour as well. Do this every night, no matter what.
- Worry or Anxiety – yes, there’s plenty to worry about. The kids won’t be returning to school this spring, your company might have to lay you off and you can’t find meat or hand sanitizer at the grocery store. Remember, we’re all in this together, help is available for you and you’re not alone. There are community resources available, volunteers and church groups that are all willing to help you if you need it. Stay connected to friends and family. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Control what you can and let go of the rest.
- Change of Routine – Chronic Pain patients typically have a well-established routine of daily living that helps them to manage their pain. That probably includes time for exercise, rest, work, social activities and self-care. Today, we’re finding our routines turned upside down with the response to the Coronavirus and our pain levels can worsen because of the lack of normalcy. The answer: Humans like to feel a sense of stability, especially in a crisis, so try to find a sense of calm and the normal again. Get back to your routine as best as you can, allowing for some change during this time.
- Depression – With all the news today, it can be normal to feel down or even depressed. Feeling depressed can greatly increase your pain. Here are some tips to help if you’re feeling low:
- Write down your feelings in a journal. Note the time of day, the weather, what’s going on at home, etc. You may start to see patterns emerge that can be helpful in dealing with your depression and your pain.
- Exercise has been proven to be as effective as medication for the relief of mild depression, so get moving. Do some form of exercise everyday and you may find your symptoms dramatically improve, without taking pharmaceuticals.
- Talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Your local church may offer pastoral counseling options. A trusted friend or family member may also offer you a safe place to process your feelings. You may also choose to seek professional counseling assistance by talking with a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker.
- If you’re feeling like there is no hope nor any end in sight, a visit to your family physician may be in order. There are medications that can help you cope for the short term until you get your depression and pain under control. Just like you would treat a heart condition, depression can be effectively treated by your doctor. Medications may be helpful, but continued feelings of helplessness or hopelessness may indicate the need for professional care by a psychiatrist or psychologist. Your PCP can refer you for more comprehensive emotional assistance. Most employers have EAP (Employee Assistance Plan) programs with counseling services included.
The National Suicide Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255. Don’t hesitate to call if you’re thinking of harming yourself or someone else. Help and immediate emotional support is there for you.