7 Ways to Survive a Flare When You’re Chronically Ill
If you’re chronically ill, it helps to be prepared when your symptoms flare.
Posted Jan 27, 2019
Part of living day-to-day with chronic illness (which includes chronic pain) is learning to cope with a flare in symptoms. Even though my parade of symptoms tend to be relentlessly the same, at times they flare and can even feel out of control.
Here are seven suggestions for effectively handling what seems to be an inevitable consequence of being chronically ill.
#1: Don’t fight it
This is one I have to remind myself about every time I’m in a flare, because my first reaction to it is aversion: “Go away! I don’t want to feel this lousy.” But ordering a flare to go away has never worked for me—not once. Not only that, but fighting it tends to make things worse because it adds a layer of mental stress to the difficulty you’re already experiencing. Fighting it can especially affect pain levels, sending them sky high.
You may not be able to accept a flare as gracefully as you wish you could, but I suggest that, at the very least, you acknowledge it gently with words such as these: “This is a flare. I’m sad about it, but it’s what’s happening in my life right now.” Acknowledging it in this way (even if it brings tears to your eyes) keeps aversion at bay and this helps you address the symptoms without adding mental suffering to the mix.
#2: Don’t blame yourself, even if your actions caused the flare
Sometimes I can’t pinpoint the cause of a flare. Other times I can. When I can, it’s almost always because I continued with an activity for too long. If you realize that a flare is due to your own actions, don’t blame yourself. It’s natural for you to sometimes go over your limits; blaming yourself for it serves no useful purpose.
I’m not suggesting that you can’t learn from your mistakes. In fact, it can be extremely valuable, as in, “Ah, when I visit with people for over an hour, it sets off a flare in symptoms.” That said, however, what’s done is done. Learn from it, but don’t make yourself feel worse by engaging in self-blame. This is the very time you need to be treating yourself extra gently and kindly—the way you’d treat a loved one who was in a flare.
#3: Postpone all non-essential tasks
When I’m in a flare, my ability to concentrate can become non-existent. In addition, it takes more energy than usual to do the simplest things. And yet, some life tasks can’t be ignored.
When your symptoms flare, I suggest you make a list of things you think you have to , and then prioritize it by putting your absolute have to’s at the top of the list. Then turn this initial list into two lists. Your new List #1 will contain those absolute have to’s. Your new list #2 will contain everything else.
Take that second list and put it aside for another day. What is an absolute have to? The answer, of course, depends on your circumstances. If you have children at home, obviously, caring for them is an absolute have to. Other than that, I’d include such things as feeding yourself, keeping medical appointments, getting prescriptions filled, dealing with emergency home maintenance (if your kitchen sink backs up, you need to call someone who can unplug it).
Whenever I make a list of things I think I simply must do, I’m always amazed at how many of the tasks that I thought were absolute have to’s (doing a load of wash or pulling up weeds on the path up to my house) aren’t actually essential. The clothes and the weeds will be there another day when I’m not feeling as sick or in such pain.
So, study that initial list you made and be ruthless in eliminating tasks that aren’t absolute have to’s.
#4: Ask for help
You may need help with those absolute have to tasks, such as getting a prescription from the pharmacy. If you’re like me, you treasure your independence, yet sometimes, it’s just not possible to do everything for yourself. In my experience, although I’m reluctant to ask for help, whenever I’ve done so, the person I’ve asked has been happy to pitch in.
Most people feel good when they can help out friends or family who are chronically ill. After almost 18 years of chronic illness, I’ve decided that asking for help is a gift from me to others because it makes them feel as if there’s at least something they can do to make me feel better. (To practice your “asking for help” skills, see my article “How to Ask for Help.”)
#5: Reduce stress as much as possible
Even during a flare, I’ve never been able to eliminate all stress from my life (if you’ve figured out how to do that, tell all of us your secret!). But I can reduce it—a little here, a little there. It could be something as simple as not getting on the scale if your weight is a source of stress for you. It could mean canceling plans with a friend whom you love but who can also be stressful to be with. It could mean gently reminding yourself that all those non-essential tasks you’ve put off for another day really are non-essential.
A good way to reduce stress is to engage in tasks that aren’t stressful, such as taking a warm bath or watching a movie on TV or listening to a favorite piece of music. And that takes me to my next suggestion…
#6: Pamper yourself
If not now, when?! Most of the suggestions in this piece can be seen as ways to pamper yourself—from not engaging in self-blame, to asking for help, to canceling plans with a friend who can be a source of stress. These are all acts of self-compassion—the ultimate way to pamper yourself. This is the time to make your needs a top priority and to do whatever you can to ease your suffering, both mental and physical.
#7: Take refuge in the universal law of impermanence
When I’m in a flare, I have a tendency to think “This is it—I’ll feel like this from now on.” But this has never been the case. I always return to my baseline. And so it’s helpful to remind yourself that life is unpredictable and ever-changing. A flare could last for weeks or even months, but it also could end as quickly as it came on. I find it comforting to reflect on impermanence when I’m in a flare. I suggest that you remind yourself several times during the day that everything is in flux, including your symptoms.
“The flare” seems to be talked about only among the chronically ill. Other people tend to think that however we feel on a given day is how we feel every day. But those of us who are chronically ill know that’s not the case. I hope these suggestions have been helpful.
Sending good wishes to everyone.