May 8, 2023

6 Tips for Mental Health Awareness Month

Chronic pain takes a huge toll on mental health. And poor mental health can actually worsen chronic pain as well. Explore 6 tips to target body-mind wellness.

As anyone with chronic pain knows, it isn’t just the pain. It’s the near-constant fatigue, the rollercoaster of emotions, the frustration at your body not cooperating with you, the inability to get a good night’s sleep… It’s a lot, to say the least.

Estimates suggest that over 50 million people live with chronic pain. According to data of more than 161,000 people analyzed by Mental Health America (MHA), roughly 79% of people with chronic pain or arthritis also lived with moderate to severe mental health conditions. Even when we just consider the incidence of depression, the American Psychiatric Association reports that people with chronic pain experience it at rates between 35-45%, compared to just 8% for adults over 20.

In fact, the co-occurence of mental health conditions is so high, that MHA suggests that people with chronic pain or arthritis also be routinely screened for commonly co-occurring conditions including: depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.

You might be thinking, “what an unbelievably unlucky stroke of misfortune that people already living with the extra weight of chronic pain are also dealt the crummy hand of mental health conditions.” 

That isn’t exactly how it works though. Chronic pain and mental health often go hand in hand, and the toxic cycle they create can often be tricky to break.

The Relationship between Chronic Pain and Mental Health

The cycle between chronic pain and mental health can be a frustrating one. 

For instance, chronic pain often leads to fatigue, trouble sleeping, social isolation, and a wide range of emotions from not being able to live life on your own terms.

The impact of chronic pain on sleep alone can have massive impacts on mental health. Sleep helps regulate everything from healing to memory consolidation to attention, learning and more. Columbia Psychiatry reports that consistently poor sleep can actually make it “more difficult to cope with even relatively minor stressors.” In essence, poor sleep can lead to worse mental health, which in turn reduces our capacity to handle chronic pain when it strikes.

Additionally, chronic pain also involves changes to the body and hormone levels, including hormones that affect mental health like cortisol, serotonin, and norepinephrine.

On the flip side of things, mental health can make it harder to cope with the comings and goings of chronic pain. Aside from affecting hormone levels, mental health can significantly affect our outlook on mental pain and our ability to cope.

For instance, if we struggle with anxiety, we might catastrophize a sudden flare-up, saying “this will never end!” This can actually heighten or elongate the experience of pain.

Of course, we’re not saying that your thoughts create your pain — far from it. Chronic pain is not in your head. Rather, the way we think about our pain can either help us, or hurt us.

6 Tips to Support Your Mental Health and Chronic Pain

While there are massive amounts of information to sift through online, supporting your mental health and chronic pain doesn’t have to be so hard. And luckily, many of the habits and tips that promote better mental health also can have a positive impact on chronic pain (and vice versa).

It’s important to note that chronic pain is different for each of us. These tips are meant to serve as guidelines into beginning your own holistic care plan for your chronic pain. As you try out these tips, be mindful of what works for you, and what doesn’t. Be sure to consult with a physician to help build out your unique care plan.

1. Mindset Matters.

The way you think about your pain matters. One of the most commonly suggested options for mental health and chronic pain include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, people learn to become more mindful of their thoughts and change their internal narrative to more peace-invoking or positive lines of thinking. 

For example, let’s say when you experience a flareup, your first thought is “this is never going to end!” 

That way of thinking can stimulate fear and hopelessness, which can increase pain sensitivity and in some cases elongate the experience. If you swap out those thoughts for ones like “this moment will pass soon” or “I am more than this moment,” you can empower yourself by providing some internal distance from the experience.

Of course, we’re not saying that chronic pain is in your head. Chronic pain is real pain. But the way you think about and respond to your flare-ups can make a difference.

2. Get Serious about Your Nutrition.

What you eat can impact hormone levels, inflammation, vitamins, and more — all of which play important roles in mental health and chronic pain.

Ensuring that your diet is packed with antioxidants and essential vitamins like vitamin A, B6, C, and E can all have protective effects that calm inflammation and support cognitive function.

Here’s a full list of vitamins, antioxidants, and foods to try to incorporate into your daily diet:

  • Antioxidants with polyphenols (berries, dark leafy greens, beans, nuts, whole grains)

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids (salmon, mackerel, tuna, walnuts, flax seeds)

  • Vitamin A (carrots, sweet potato, spinach, liver, cantaloupe, mango, egg)

  • Vitamin B6 (fish, beef liver, potatoes, starchy vegetables, non-citrus fruits)

  • Vitamin C (citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, red and green peppers, kiwi, broccoli)

  • Vitamin E (sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, collard greens, spinach, pumpkin)

  • Zinc (oysters, beef, crab, pumpkin seeds, pork, turkey, shrimp, lentils)

  • Iron (oysters, clams, mussels, beef/chicken liver, canned sardines, fortified breakfast cereals, beans, dark chocolate, lentils, spinach)

  • Selenium (Brazil nuts, tuna, halibut, sardines, ham, shrimp, beef, brown rice, hard boiled eggs, baked beans)

  • Folic acid (dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, fresh fruits, whole grains)

Learn more about the dos and don’ts of nutrition for arthritis >>

3. Soak up Some Sun and Fresh Air.

Did you know soaking up sunlight can actually promote better mental health? Research has found that sunlight is readily transformed into Vitamin D, and also helps promote serotonin (known as the body’s “feel good hormone”). Additionally, sunlight exposure can promote balance in the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and make it easier to get quality sleep at night.

Additionally, nature has been found to positively impact mental health as well. 

So if you’re wondering how to support both your mental health and chronic pain, spending time outdoors could be a great option. (Just make sure to wear sunscreen and protect your joints from the heat as things warm up!)

4. Make Time for Movement.

While it might seem contrary to common thinking, moving your body in gentle ways can actually support chronic pain relief. And while we might want to do anything BUT move our bodies when we’re feeling down, exercise can also be great for mental health as well.

Gentle exercise like going for walks, swimming, gentle stretching, Tai Chi, restorative yoga, resistance training, or the elliptical are all great options. Just start small and stop when you still feel good (before your joints start to ache).

<< Explore 5 Arthritis-Friendly Indoor Workouts >>

5. Get a Handle on Your Sleep Schedule.

Like we mentioned earlier, sleep is essential for health. Of course, getting sleep is easier said than done, especially when you’re dealing with chronic pain and mental health issues.

Here are a few tips to make falling asleep and staying asleep a little bit easier:

  • Stop using blue-light emitting technology (phones, laptops) about an hour before sleep

  • Eat your last meal at least an hour before sleep

  • Use your bed only for sleep or intimacy

  • Create your own relaxation evening routine

  • Meditate for 5-10 minutes to help clear your mind

  • Build a sleep-time playlist with white noise, ASMR, sleep stories, or relaxing music

  • Get sunlight during the day and make sure your sleeping environment is dark and quiet 

6. Prioritize Time for What You Love.

Stress often goes hand-in-hand with chronic pain and mental health conditions. Like chronic pain, stress is not just in the mind — it leads to real impacts on the body that can negatively impact our health in numerous ways.

Managing stress can help with managing inflammatory hormones and chemicals within the body. So how do you do that?

First, make sure to prioritize time for what you love! Whether you have 5 minutes or an hour — doing something just for you that has no purpose other than your enjoyment can help you relax and bring back a sense of control over your life.

Here are a few activities to help inspire you:

  • Create art

  • Watercolor

  • Build something

  • Sing

  • Move your body in ways that feel good (gently and with care)

  • Go for a walk outside

  • Sit in the sun

  • Read poetry

  • Read a favorite book

  • Listen to your favorite music

  • Try something new (a new restaurant, food, music, a new place)

  • Learn a new skill

  • Play a game (boardgame, video game, card game, word game)

  • Have a heart-to-heart with a loved one

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