By Rosie Palmer, Assistant Psychologist at The Walton Centre’s Pain Management Programme.
If you are having trouble dealing with worries about the coming months, you are not alone. Winter can be a challenging time, with darker and colder days, and this year we are approaching it with an added challenge of COVID-19 and the uncertainty around what this will bring.
It is helpful to remember that feelings of anxiety and stress are normal reactions to this unusual situation. These feelings can understandably impact on sleep, mood and pain. Therefore, it is more important than ever to place extra focus on maintaining our wellbeing. This blog from the Pain Management Programme at The Walton Centre will provide guidance and support for how to maintain your physical and emotional wellbeing over the winter. It is primarily aimed at those who experience chronic pain, but can hopefully provide valuable information more widely too.
Sleep is a key promoter of emotional wellbeing as well as being important to our physical health and immune system functioning. Not getting the right amount of sleep affects our mood, behaviour, brain function as well as levels of pain. Falling into a cycle of poor sleep is such an easy thing to do - pain can be a trigger, with worries about sleep, or general worries, often reinforcing the problem.
The most important thing is to improve sleep quality as much as possible. Try to stick to a routine, with a regular bedtime and waking time, block out all distracting noise, reduce screen time before bed, and you could try keeping a notepad next to the bed to write down anything that is worrying you. Daylight is another essential factor to help regulate our sleep wake cycles - by getting outside during the day you can improve sleep quality. This can become much more difficult over the winter months but try to get outside even if it’s cloudy.
Involving regular movement in your daily routine will improve sleep quality, as well as overall physical wellbeing. Physical activity can be a scary prospect for someone who experiences chronic pain as many fear it will increase pain or make their situation worse, however, research highlights the importance of keeping active in the presence of chronic pain, reporting that physical activity can reduce the severity of pain, improve physical functioning and improve quality of life1.
During the winter months outdoor activities become a lot more difficult so it can be helpful to think about what exercise you can do indoors. This might involve walking up and down the stairs, doing a home workout video or doing some stretching. The Brain Charity is currently running chair-based yoga, neuropilates and dance sessions on Zoom. Considering the level and type of activity that is right for you is fundamental. Gentle, low intensity exercise is a key component of chronic pain self-management and will provide you with both physical and psychological rewards. Read this blog post about the importance of physical wellbeing in the presence of chronic pain for more information on this.
During periods of lockdown, it is important to keep ourselves busy and to continue doing the things that bring us joy. Thinking about what your values are can help to guide what you do to ensure that you are still engaging in activities that fulfil you, to maintain your emotional wellbeing. The current situation, or the presence of chronic pain, might mean you have to adapt your usual activities slightly but you can still live a life that is in line with your values.
Values are things that are important to us in our lives and they come under several different categories: work and education, relationships, personal growth and leisure.
Think about your own personal values…
What really matters to you? What do you want to do with your time on this planet? What sort of person do you want to be?
Then think of ways you can continue to engage in doing activities related to this. For example, if you usually value a weekly social event, you could think about organising a social online (zoom, skype etc.) meet up to continue this throughout the lockdown period, or come along to one of The Brain Charity’s fortnightly virtual coffee mornings.
Mindfulness & Self-Compassion
At this difficult time it’s important to focus on what you have control over, so that you can let go of what you do not have control over. Mindfulness is about being aware of the present moment in a non-judgemental way. Paying more attention to the present moment – to your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you - is the first step to mindfulness and can improve your psychological wellbeing. To incorporate mindfulness into your routine it can be helpful to pick a certain time each day to practice, for example while you’re brushing your teeth or while on a walk. The Brain Charity is currently running online mindfulness sessions via Zoom which are open to all service users.
Lastly, it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself. Being compassionate to yourself and others can have profoundly beneficial effects on your wellbeing – read more on this here. Remember that this isn’t forever and that it’s okay to be finding this situation challenging. Take things step by step and talk to other people if you’re finding things difficult.
You can read more about these areas, and others such as relationships and goal-setting, on The Walton Centre’s Pain Management Programme blog: painmanagementprogramme.wordpress.com/
1. Geneen, L.J., Moore, R., Clarke, C., Martin, D., Colvin L.A. and Smith, B.H. (2017). Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults – an overview of Cochrane Reviews. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4. CD0112792017.