Managing Chronic Pain While in School
By Erin Dzioba 3rd year Sociology student
The importance of self-management, time management, and school-life balance while coping with chronic pain.
Chronic pain…where do I even begin?
I started struggling with chronic pain when I was in grade nine. I had emergency spinal surgery due to a tumour that was paralyzing me from my chest down to my feet. I’m now a third year undergraduate. However, as a result of the 11-hour surgery, I now struggle with chronic pain every moment I am awake. I’m writing this blog to comfort other chronic pain survivors, give you some tips on how to manage your life with school while in pain, and educate those who aren’t fully aware of this physical disability. Much of the advice I give here would help out those suffering from similar chronic or ongoing mental or physical issues.
What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is a physical disability that causes pain and occurs every day. The pain is diagnosed as chronic when it lasts longer than 12 weeks. Chronic pain cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Chronic pain often not only affects the survivor physically, but other health problems can arise: insomnia, fatigue, decreased appetite, mood changes such as depression, anxiety, and irritability, are not unusual. My chronic pain has lasted six years and, though being in pain every moment of the day can seem daunting, my experience has helped me grow in a way that allows me to reach out to and help people like you.
Living with chronic pain at school has affected my energy levels. On good days, I wake up and am motivated to be productive while my pain is at its least. On bad days, I wake up already in pain, not wanting to get out of bed, and just the thought of going to class makes me unmotivated. School takes up most of my time, and I treat it like a full time job. Unfortunately, however, school is the largest factor in worsening my pain due to endless hours of sitting, studying, reading, and writing. As a result, I am often isolated because once I’m done my to-do list for school, I usually have no energy to do anything else, like socialize or even cook for myself.
The isolating effect of chronic pain can often negatively affect my motivation to do just about anything. I have had to learn how to balance my schoolwork, social life, eating well, and doing things that feed my soul. I get frustrated with my chronic pain on a daily basis, as it is disappointing to constantly be amending my schedule around my pain – saying no to social events, having low energy levels, not finishing the work I have to do, and not even being able to engage in any of my hobbies because the only way to diminish my pain is to lay in bed.
My ability to focus has been affected by my chronic pain. Sitting in class for an hour and a half feels like a six-hour car ride to me. My pain will start within five minutes of sitting down in class, so it takes a lot of willpower to focus and take effective notes. One of the main reasons I became a Peer Learning Assistant was to learn for myself how to flourish in school through all of the great strategies we teach. To have maximum focus, I have to be in a comfortable position that supports my back. Once I know that my pain won’t arise in this position, my ability to focus lasts a significantly longer time than if I was leaning over a desk at Stauffer.
“Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come. Remember everything you have faced, all the battles you have won, and all the fears you have overcome.” – Unknown Author
Tip #1: Self-Management & Self-Care
My first tip about how to get past the decreased energy levels, isolation, and lack of ability to focus caused by my chronic pain relates to self-management and self-care.
Self-management is a process, and it may or may not come easily, but chronic pain will help you discover more about yourself, such as what really makes you happy and distracts you from your pain, who around you lightens your mood when you’re having a bad day, and how to effectively communicate with people. If you experience chronic pain, you have to learn how to problem solve, advocate for yourself, and learn decision-making. I have had to find a way to draw a line between working on school and doing things that make me happy. The silver lining to having chronic pain can be hard to find, but it has taught me the importance of balancing my daily life.
Meditation has helped me accept my chronic pain. For me, meditation involves lying down where my pain is alleviated so I can focus. Meditation helps my mind be at peace and ease, and has helped me accept that I am a survivor of chronic pain. The physical act of focusing on my breathing calms my muscles and slows my heart rate, which in turn can actually alleviate some of my physical pain.
Similarly, I try to deal with my chronic pain by getting out into nature. Whenever I find myself spiralling into a dark hole of hopelessness when my pain gets bad, I try my hardest to go outside as it brings me out of my dark thoughts and back to the present. I feel grounded.
It is important to acknowledge that survivors are different in their management preferences. It may take a while to find the right treatment for you, but there are many routes to calm and ease the difficulties associated with chronic pain.
Tip #2: Time Management
Time management is the key to success. When just sitting in class after an hour my back starts to hurt, you can imagine how hard it is for me to spend hours at the library or sitting up doing my readings, writing essays, completing assignments, etc. To improve your time management, try to find what time of the day your pain is at its least. For me, my pain is least in the morning and worsens as the day goes on. I take advantage of that morning period to power through some work. Finding your productive time will allow you to rest when you’re in pain without stress or guilt that you haven’t done your school work.
Creating weekly and even daily schedules will help you finish some work while managing your pain. You can learn more about creating detailed schedules here. I want to draw your attention to a couple of my favourite methods. The ABC method of prioritization is one that I use to help manage my time. It works like this: label all the tasks you have to do with the letter A; label tasks that should be done with the letter B; and tasks you want to do but don’t have to do with the letter C. Now you know what to address first when you’re feeling at your best, and what you can put out of your mind until tomorrow. Meanwhile, a monthly calendar helps me prioritize tasks over the coming weeks. Having a monthly view of due dates and other events is important because you won’t miss anything when creating a day’s ABC to-do-list.
Tip #3: School-Life Balance
School-life balance helps you stay healthy, physically and mentally. School-life balance is one of the main reasons why I am able to persevere and cope with my chronic pain. If, as I’ve shown you above, you work while your pain is at its least, you can also spend time looking after yourself and doing things you enjoy if your pain worsens.
So, how does one actually balance school, eating well, doing things you enjoy, socializing, and finding time to sleep? My advice is to create a daily routine. I know that my mornings are a vital time when I push myself to the fullest, but also reward myself when I achieve goals. I have specific days of the week where I schedule in certain activities that keep me entertained or relaxed, like hobbies and socializing. It is so important to prioritize activities that maintain your mental and physical health alongside schoolwork. Whenever I schedule something I have to do for school in my to-do list, I also add something for myself. I challenge you to do the same, and hopefully you will achieve school-life balance.
A Final Note
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors, peers, family, and professionals if you’re struggling. A support system of friends and family members who listen and offer emotional support is a great tool, but there are lots of professionals at Queen’s who’ll help you too. A starting point to getting assistance is through Student Wellness Services. You can phone them at 613-533-2506. Counselling services, which can be reached at 613-533-6000 extension 78264, are always ready to help you out too. If you need help with learning and writing, the staff and peer assistants at Student Academic Success Services will help you out through workshops or one-on-one appointments. But you might not always need formal assistance: try asking your professors for extensions if you can’t get your work done by the due date because of how chronic pain or any other similar condition. Lots of faculty and staff at the university will be understanding and want to help you out. Good luck!