When I searched online for “things to do when you can’t get out of bed”, everything I found was geared towards people with the flu or recovering from surgery and who have a high amount of mobility. Even the articles written for people with chronic pain included activities that can be considered challenging, such as knitting, writing, and cooking.
When I think back to my worst flareups, and the flareups of people I know, none of us would’ve been able to do 75% of the things on those lists.
The other issue with these lists is that they tend to focus on entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, having fun is important and everyone deserves to have time when they aren’t worried about being “productive”. That being said, if you are in bed for weeks or months at a time, it’s also important to learn how to manage your pain and work on building your future.
As a result, I’ve made my own list of activities that require very little mobility AND that can help you take control of your future.
This and all other blog entries are for educational purposes only and are not a replacement for medical advice. You should always consult with your healthcare providers before changing or discontinuing your treatment plan and before trying something new that could impact your health.
Throughout this post there are links to additional resources and information. These are not affiliate links. I’ve included them because myself or others have found them to be helpful.
1. Write a Better Story
It’s understandable to feel hopeless when your pain is so unmanageable that you can’t even get out of bed. When you’ve tried everything but still aren’t getting better. When even your doctors don’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it.
It’s understandable to feel that your future has been cut off before it’s even begun. When everyone around you is going to college, working, dating, and reaching other accomplishments, you may feel like you’re falling behind and will never catch up.
It’s understandable to feel all of this, but it’s not necessarily true.
What if there was another way to look at the situation? What if you are like a flower bulb; hunkered deep below the winter snow and invisible to everyone but secretly and slowly preparing yourself to bloom. Or maybe you are a caterpillar inside your chrysalis whose body parts are dissolving away completely, only to later on have your cells reorganize and build an entirely new creature with incredible abilities.
History is full of examples of people like Abraham Lincoln who “failed” over and over again and who could have easily given up, but instead used every experience as an opportunity to learn and prepare for their eventual success. It’s also full of people like Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and John McCain who spent years as political prisoners or prisoners of war never knowing if they would ever be released, but who used the experience to sharpen their minds and who ultimately went on to be powerful world leaders.
If you’ve lost all hope or motivation, you may have unconsciously written a story about how your life is over when in reality it’s too soon for you to know. It’s possible that this is just the beginning of a transformation or an adventure.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that losing hope or motivation is your fault. I’m also not suggesting that you have to be smiling and optimistic all the time. What you’re going through is really really really tough, and it’s completely reasonable to feel sad and frustrated. The idea that I am offering is that the stories we tell ourselves are powerful. Creating a different storyline for yourself is a way to take control of your experience and manage both physical and emotional pain.
If you want to give it a try, you can use one of the metaphors above, or come up with your own. What’s important is that it’s true to your personality and your dreams.
2. Mindfulness: Learn to Take Control of Your Life
It was hard to decide whether or not to include this in the list because some people have negative associations with mindfulness practices, especially meditation and yoga. For starters, many people have had their symptoms dismissed by doctors who say their pain is mostly due to “stress” and that the best thing to do is meditate. Secondly, meditation and yoga have been co-opted by popular culture and commercialized in ways that alienate others. However, mindfulness is a powerful tool for managing pain, and I invite you to set aside your preconceptions and give it a try.
So what exactly does mindfulness do? From my experience and observing the experiences of others, mindfulness helps you become aware of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that you may have never noticed, but that control the way you experience life. Much of the suffering caused by pain comes not from the pain itself, but from the anxiety, anger, fear, and sadness that goes along with it. Even if you can’t get rid of your pain, mindfulness can help you make more conscious decisions about how you want to respond to these thoughts, feelings, and sensations. By becoming more responsive and less reactive, people who practice mindfulness can gain more control over how they experience pain and have a higher quality of life.
One of the leaders in the area mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to help people manage stress, pain, and illness. In his book, Full Catastrophe Living, he affirms that pain is a complex thing and that using mindfulness to simply “[make] the pain go away is not a very useful immediate goal.” Instead of seeing mindfulness as a cure for pain, he encourages medical practitioners and patients to see it as a tool that can improve “your ability to regulate or modulate your experience of pain and develop a healthy relationship with it…”.
To Learn More:
Audio | Headspace (Guided mindfulness exercises. You’ll need to download an app. There’s a free version as well as a paid version that unlocks more content.)
3. Visualization: Practice Like a Pro
Also referred to as guided imagery, visualization is the practice of using the imagination to help manage thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Some of the most common practitioners of visualization are professional athletes. Before taking a penalty kick, soccer players may close their eyes and imagine themselves kicking the ball into the top corner of the net. Gymnasts may go through their entire routine and rock climbers may picture themselves effortlessly completing a move that has been difficult to master.
Visualization is also used in pain management. It’s not a magic cure that simply eliminates your pain, though. What it can do — when practiced regularly — is help you regulate your experience of pain. This can work in a variety of ways: For some people it may help manage pain-related anxiety, for some it may help relax tense muscles that contribute to pain, and for others it may increase hope and motivation by helping them envision a positive future.
To Learn More:
Article | Guided Imagery: A Valuable Tool for Managing Pain from Pain Pathways Magazine
Article | Imperfect Spirituality: Imagine Life without Pain from Psychology Today
Video | Simple Pain Visualization Exercises from Pain Free Drug Free
4. Keep Moving… Even If It’s Just a Little Bit
One of the unexpected challenges of pain is the negative impact it can have on parts of the body that aren’t in pain. When you aren’t able to use one part of your body, it sometimes limits the use of another part. Over time that body part can also begin to hurt if it's not moved or maintained enough.
For example, if you have back pain, you may stop bending over, which can reduce the amount of movement in your pelvis and legs. If you have wrist pain, you may limit the use of your hands, which also limits the use of your arms, shoulders, and neck.
The good news is that there are many ways to keep moving and stretching your body, even when you can’t get out of bed. For example, you can gently roll your head and neck around in circles or wiggle your toes. If you have more mobility, you can shake your legs, twist your torso on each side, or raise your arms over your head. Even changing your sitting and lying positions from time to time can help. If you have a hard time remembering to move, try setting an alarm for every 30 minutes.
Even if you’re only able to do something small, every little bit of movement can help.
To Learn More:
Website | Katy Bowman: Author and Biomechanist
Article | 15 Exercises Pain Patients Can Do in Bed
5. Apply for Benefits Programs
Did you know that you may qualify for programs that can help you manage life with pain? Many of these programs are run through county and state governments, the federal government, and nonprofits. They can help you acquire assistive technology that makes it easier to do activities of daily living, pay for personal care attendants, get medical insurance, figure out a career path, and more.
In some cases, reading up on whether you qualify, putting together an application, waiting for the paperwork to be processed, and scheduling intake appointments can take MONTHS. If you’re stuck in bed with time on your hands, now is a great time to get started.
To Learn More:
Federal & State Programs | Government Benefits Search Tool
State Program | California Department of Rehabilitation (If you don’t live in California, you can do an online search for the Department of Rehabilitation agency in your state)
Nonprofit Organization | Centers for Independent Living
Nonprofit Organization | Disability Rights and Education Fund