Jessi Chval on Distraction Therapy and Chronic Pain

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Hi, I'm Rebecca Fortelka, AXIS Board Member and Guest Editor of this blog. I'm proud to present an amazing Chronic Pain Warrior, and my friend, Jessi Chval from Portland Oregon, who will share her thoughts on Distraction Therapy as relief from chronic pain. We at AXIS use dance as one form of distraction therapy, but this type of therapy can it can come in many forms for all types of people. I would love for our community to learn more about this kind of therapy. But as always, please consult a medical professional before starting a new course of treatment. We hope this helps some people find relief for their pain. Read on to learn more!

On distraction therapy, Jessi Chval writes:
We all do it; healthy, sick, or somewhere in between, we all have moments in our life where distraction is the best and sometimes the only solution. The difference between simply staring at a wall and doodling on a sketchpad is immense, and has a profound impact on how we perceive and cope with stress or pain.

My pain is constant, with many breakthrough flares that make it difficult to withstand any touch, even from clothing. The pain comes in all locations, shapes, sizes, and severities, but no matter how ugly it is, suffering is no match for good distraction techniques. What that looks like to each person is completely unique to their personality, their tastes, and their singular experience of being a person in pain.

The basic idea behind distraction therapy is that chronic pain is always tugging at us, telling us to pay attention to it, screaming at us sometimes and other times whispering in our ear over and over again, trying to get us to fixate on it. Our minds are basically hardwired from dealing with so much pain to be distractible. It can be difficult to get started; our culture tells us we can’t possibly do that thing we miss, because we are sick, and what if it hurts us or we are seen by someone and they tell everyone we know that we’re not really sick because we did xyz activity that only healthy people are allowed to do. Distraction therapy kicks all that nonsense calmly to the curb and preaches instead that we should not hesitate to enjoy anything our bodies and minds will allow us to do, from the repetition and serenity of coloring in zen tangles and line drawings, to the physical difficulty of gardening and painting, to the mentally challenging distractions of web design and learning to use Photoshop. Those are a few of my own personal examples, but distraction therapy is anything your heart desires to accomplish, and anything that interests you. Having so many approaches that are potential paths I can use to get out of feeling stuck, useless, or isolated is an enormous relief.

Like other forms of pain therapy, distraction therapy isn’t just for pain symptoms, it also helps me get through bouts of nausea, depression, anxiety, ptsd flashbacks, and feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. With a little bit of planning, I have made sure that effective distractions are with me in one form or another wherever I am, even out of the house. I try to always bring a pen, a small set of watercolor pencils, lightweight notebook and sketch pads, headphones and an iPod, and my phone for chatting and games. In the car I keep an intricate coloring book, markers, and sudoku or word search books.

When I’m having a relatively good day for me physically, what helps me get outside and cope with the pain, nausea, headache, and dizziness caused by increased movement is holding a camera. Viewing everything through the lens of a camera can actually distract me from a host of symptoms caused by the uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable act of walking even short distances. With the camera in hand, on a good day I can go farther, snapping picture after picture, than I would be able to if I were just focused on the act of walking.

For this reason I keep a list handy of activities that I can seem to distract myself with at various self-reported pain levels. The list looks like an outline organized by what pain level they are most useful at, and is saved on an app called ToDoist that syncs across my phone, tablet, and desktop. I use it to keep track of everything from medical information to shopping lists. The app gets so much use that I now refer to it as my brain, especially since mine seems to be taking a not-so-short vacation right now.

Here are my top ten most-used distractions:

1.     Pinterest
2.     blogging/writing/journaling
3.     street and backyard photography
4.     gardening (or just being surrounded by my lush green vegetable garden even when I can’t be active in it)
5.     company coming over or chatting with others online
6.     painting and multimedia art projects, usually 20 or so at a time
7.     adult coloring books and digital art for times when painting is out of the question
8.     music or relaxation mantras
9.     pretending to be a chef, canning, and testing new skincare recipes
10.  cartoons, when all else fails

Many of the ways in which I accomplish these activities are significantly modified from before my illness, so that they now allow me to conserve energy, take breaks often, and still accomplish more than I ever thought possible before I learned that pacing isn’t letting my illness win, and it isn’t silly either. Now I bring a chair with me when I need to be in front of the oven for a long period of time. I set time limits on mentally taxing tasks which both prevents burn out and also ensures I do not stay still for too long. It took me a while to get to the point where I could do these things at all, even on a good day, and it will take a while before all the changes I am making become more second nature and less needing to refer to a list.

In spite of the distance I still need to cover to be where I want to emotionally and physically in this journey with chronic illness, I am proud of what progress has been made. I am amazed that this time last year, my only distraction technique was deep breathing, taught with biofeedback at a physical therapy clinic. Yet, there is so much more out there! Most of the options are way more appealing than breathing exercises and meditation, because with distraction therapy it’s all about unlocking what you, the unique individual with creative potential, are passionate about or drawn to.

Distraction therapy also forms a good excuse to tackle new hobbies and crafts. If you think about it, an art class or web design workshop is about the same price as a session with a psychologist. and has similar life-long lasting benefits.

Guilt is one of those nagging problems I had to address before creativity could finally rush back into my life after two years of extremely limited artistic expression. Fear of being selfish used to freeze my ability to craft, write, paint, garden, or go for a limping walk with a camera when I was hurting too much to do the dishes, take a shower, drive, or go to work. From my new perspective, I understand that chronic pain doesn’t work that way. Now I tell the nagging voice that the word selfish has been exchanged for self-care. The more distractions I collect in my toolkit for coping with chronic pain, the more good days and happy memories I will have, and therefore my relationships and artistic endeavors will benefit as well.

I use distraction therapy as a medium for finding joy in pain. It gives me nearly endless tools to get through the times when meds do not take the edge off, but I also use it while completing assignments which have actual deadlines. In fact, while writing this, I have been more productive than usual. I have started four paintings and finished two. I have planted peas, strawberries, flower bulbs, and salad greens. I have fertilized my spring garden and hand watered it using a stool to sit in front of each bed. I think I did a little bit of everything on my top ten list, actually. While I was supposed to be working on explaining the process, I went ahead and put distraction therapy into practice instead. My current flare up has been so severe I haven’t slept much at all for the last week. Without distraction therapy I’m not sure I would have been able to comply with a writing deadline at all.

It just goes to show that what we do while we procrastinate what we are “supposed to be doing” is what we should really allow ourselves the room to focus on, with or without illness. Distraction therapy has opened a whole new world up for me, wherein I can gain control in countless tiny ways over a level of pain that would otherwise threaten to overwhelm me. For the first time in nearly four years, I am excited to wake up every morning and start my version of working, often on a brand new project. It’s not the same level of productivity I might have had without illness, and it’s not like I can suddenly drive or go to work or leave the house as often as I would like, but distraction therapy offers hope. Hope is a big deal to a chronic pain patient or someone fighting an invisible illness.

I did not choose to become suddenly ill in my twenties, but I have chosen to find ways to continue to enjoy my passions. Thriving with a chronic illness takes creativity, every single day. In an unexpected way, it also fosters in us an abundance of resourcefulness and innovation, and for that I am grateful.