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8 Ways to Start Living a Better Life if You Suffer from Chronic Pain or Illness

You look tired.” I’ve heard these three words almost daily for as long as I can remember. And truth be told, I usually am! Not because I don’t eat right or because I pull all-nighters binge watching Stranger Things (okay, sometimes I do, but that’s beside the point).

The real reason I’m tired is because I have an autoimmune disease. More than one, actually, which is quite common. Since my entire immune system is compromised, any number of health issues can arise. Thanks, genetics!

Needless to say, struggling with autoimmune diseases for the past 30 years has impacted my life in countless negative ways. It was particularly challenging throughout my twenties, that all-important time in your life when you venture out on your own and attempt to establish yourself in “the real world.”

I’ve had my share of people thinking I’m flaky. “Sorry, I had every intention of attending your Ugly Christmas Sweater party, but my body decided otherwise.”

I’m often late. There are times I literally can’t get out of bed when my alarm goes off. Then, when I finally do, I go about my morning very slowly. If we’re meeting before noon, I apologize in advance—I’ll probably be late.

Maybe you can relate?

Unfortunately, my situation isn’t unique. According to organizations like NIH and AARDA, Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases in alarming numbers. Estimates range from 23.5 to 50 million. Moreover, women make up the majority of those living with the chronic pain and illness associated with such diseases.

As if you don’t have enough going on already.

Education. Career. Exercise. Family. Friends. Side hustle. There’s a lot to balance in the day-to-day life of a millennial. Throw debilitating health problems into the mix and living a normal life seems next to impossible!

When I worked a traditional 9-to-5 job, my health and wellbeing suffered big time. My energy was always low and I’d crash as soon as I got home from work. That meant no workouts, no nutritious meals, and no quality time with my husband.

The weekend? That was spent recuperating. And by the time I started to feel almost normal…it was time to start the week all over.

That’s no way to live your life!

While my autoimmune diseases still get the best of me at times, I’ve learned how to manage my health over the years so that I’m able to live a happy, fun, and fulfilling life. If you suffer from chronic pain and illness, structuring your life in strategic, intentional ways must become your new normal. Sorry to say, flying by the seat of your pants isn’t really an option.

From one sufferer to another, here are my best tips for managing your health and wellbeing:

1. Make time for self-care.

You’re probably thinking “well duh,” but hear me out. Before I started designing my life to work with my health problems rather than against them, I didn’t do any deliberate self-care practices. I always tried to squeeze in as many “normal” activities as possible (e.g., happy hour, gym sessions, etc.), but this would completely wipe me out.

Instead, set aside uninterrupted time to do the things that truly recharge you. Whether that’s meditation, curling up with a good book, or simply resting for 20-30 minutes after work—schedule it and allow yourself the time GUILT FREE.

2. Open up about your struggles.

Trust me, I know it can feel embarrassing to share your health problems with your social circle. I never wanted people to see me as weak or incapable. However, learning how widespread autoimmune diseases are has helped me overcome this reservation. More people than you realize probably understand—and perhaps can even relate to—your situation.

You don’t have to give anyone the nitty gritty details, but letting people in on your struggles will release a huge burden from your shoulders. If your friends and family know what’s going on, they’ll forgive you for missing brunch. Your managers and colleagues will likely be more sympathetic to your woes as well. If not, that leads me to my next point…

3. Negotiate a flexible working environment.

Look, it’s not the 1950s anymore. Career options and working conditions have changed drastically. Many companies provide flexible schedules, work-from-home options, wellness programs and more. If your workplace doesn’t value your health and wellbeing, maybe it’s time you looked for employment elsewhere.

4. Strike out on your own.

Want complete control over your work life? Become your own boss. This may seem counterintuitive to a more balanced lifestyle since starting a business is HARD work, but in the end, it allows you unmatched freedom and flexibility. Being able to design my life around my health needs is one of the main reasons I launched my own business—and it was the best decision I ever made!

If this is something you might want to pursue, you can start now by finding your business niche and learning how to go from dreamer to doer.

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5. Work in short stints.

You’ve probably heard of the Pomodoro Technique, which teaches you to break up your workday between short intervals of laser-focused work and periods of rest. This approach tends to work well for those of us with chronic health issues.

Whether your illness inhibits you from staying focused for long periods of time, or you experience pain when sitting in front of a computer too much, dividing your work into mini sessions is a great option. Get up and stretch, take a stroll, grab a snack—listen to your body and do what it tells you.

6. Use energy bursts to work ahead.

For people who suffer from an autoimmune disease, energy often comes and goes in waves. These frequently correspond with “flare-ups.” In other words, your condition may seem to be completely under control for a length of time, then suddenly, your symptoms hit. Hard.

When your health is at peak performance, take advantage of it. Use this period of high energy to cross as much as you can off your to-do list. Be careful not to push yourself too hard, though, because overexertion can actually lead to a flare-up.

7. Eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.

Yes, of course, everyone should be doing these things. But for those with compromised immunity, a healthy diet, physical activity, and sufficient sleep are non-negotiable. Sleep deprivation alone can cause your system to crash.

It should be noted that I’m NOT a medical professional, so please consult your doctor about proper nutrition and exercise for your particular health condition.

8. Give yourself grace.

Finally, perhaps the most important tip of all: don’t beat yourself up when you let things slip. I used to have a bad habit of looking at my friends who appeared to so effortlessly have it all. Their houses were clean, fridges always full, they were climbing the corporate ladder—all while starting a family AND maintaining their social lives! Like, what?

I couldn’t figure out their secret to the perfect life. Here’s the thing…there isn’t one. Simply, they have the fortune of good health. Don’t compare yourself to them or anyone else. Be proud of everything you are able to accomplish despite your health constraints.

Learning how to design a life around my condition rather than letting it control me was a game-changer. And I hope it is for you, too.

And this goes for all kinds of things as well. Whether it’s a surgery you’ve had to have (like a reverse shoulder replacement, for example), another procedure, taking extended leave, or coping with your mental health, it is possible to live a better, more balanced life if you suffer from chronic pain.

If you suffer from an autoimmune disease or chronic pain and illness, what are your top tips for managing your day-to-day life and health? What might you implement from this list?

By Erin Sanchez

Erin Sanchez is a writer, marketing consultant, and business strategist living in the Greater Seattle Area with her husband, four dogs, and five chickens. She geeks out on consumer psychology and what makes businesses tick while drinking way too much coffee. When she’s not blogging at or teaching women how to flee the 9-5 grind and build businesses they love, Erin spends as much time outdoors as possible. Connect with her on Twitter – @CandidlyErin.