12 Strategies to Balance College and Chronic Pain

Dear Hurting College Student,

Good for you!

Good for you for realizing that you are more than your pain and daring to enter the world of academia to become more than your pain.

What a daunting task. Not only are trying to get a degree and form relationships like everyone else, but you’re also trying to function. It’s a difficult place to be: You’re on survival mode, while the normal students are on party mode.

But to you, the work you put in day in and day out is a big deal. Endeavoring to better yourself through education is a challenging task for anyone brave enough to try. Chronic pain makes it all the more difficult.

If you’re not already doing these things, here are some ways to attend to both yourself and your GPA.

  1. Register with your school’s disability services. I went two years without accommodations from my school. It was miserable. The attendance policies for my classes were the biggest burden; just about every semester, I was one absence away from getting an FA (Failure due to Absence) in many of my classes. Once I registered with Disability Resources, my professors were held responsible to work with me regarding absences. I don’t know how I managed without accommodations for so long. I recommend doing this before your first semester in college.
  2. Get to know your professors. Whether or not you have accommodations, meeting with your professors one-on-one allows them to identify who you are, and they can know what symptoms to look for while you’re in their class. Meeting face-to-face can also show your professors your genuineness in reaching out for help. Over email, it’s easier to assume that someone doesn’t really need extra help. I remember the look on my professors faces when they realized that I am actually dealing with difficult circumstances both inside and outside the classroom. It’s extremely beneficial to reach a level of understanding between you and your professor early on in the semester.
  3. Look over your syllabus ASAP. If a class seems to much to handle from Day 1 (or whenever you see the syllabus), it won’t get any easier. Drop it if you feel the need.
  4. Fill out your planner ASAP. As soon as you get your syllabus, fill all dates in your planner. Every date your professor gives you: test dates, quiz dates, project due dates, paper due dates. Write it all down. After you’ve done this for each class, highlight the days you really can’t afford to miss. By planning it out now, you can do whatever is necessary to make that class. If that means skipping the class before so you can be fully prepared to stand for your speech, skip. Strategically skip so that you can attend more classes long-term.
  5. Find multiple study locations where you can be comfortable. Your pain is probably your biggest enemy while you study. Having more than one location that will minimize the pain can optimize your study time. If that means mostly studying in your room, do it. It’s better for you to be comfortable than sociable while studying.
  6. Realize that you will have to take more study breaks. And that is okay. I’ve found that, for this reason, it’s more difficult to study in groups than individually. I face enough distractions studying on my own. If you’re the same way, it might help to keep a tally of what causes your distractions. Categorizing by specific areas of pain or various emotional or spiritual needs can indicate how best to care yourself. For example, if you take tallies for an hour and are most distracted by neck pain, find a better way to support your neck before continuing to study. If you can’t concentrate because you’re stressed about life in general, take a coloring break.
  7. Exercise during study breaks. Not only is this something you’ve probably heard from multiple doctors. (Probably so often that you roll your eyes at the thought.) But it also gives you energy to continue studying. I know it’s difficult to find ways to exercise without pain. For me, one thing that actually helps raise my heart rate without raising my pain rate is a pedal bike. I have it on the floor beside my desk, so I sit in my desk chair while I pedal. That way I can avoid back pain/shoulder pain from riding a normal bike. Find what does the trick, and do that exercise in small increments between studying.
  8. Make food/sleep a priority. School stress is fun because it can make you forget to do what you need the most. Have a regular eating/sleeping schedule that you work studying around. I definitely get less productive when I’m hungry and need protein. So if I’m not planning to eat dinner at 5:00, then I stop trying to work until after I eat. And my quality of work drastically declines after 9:30. So at 10:00, I stop what I’m doing and go to bed.
  9. Schedule times to meet up with people a weekend in advance. Chronic pain doesn’t have to debilitate your social life. It helps to plan in advance, so you don’t get caught in the unknowns of “Hey let’s hang out!” By making the plans yourself, you can make sure you’re only doing things that you’re physically capable of. Of course, all of this can get thrown out the window with a bad pain day. But as with classes, you can try to skip the less important activities to rest up for the more important ones.
  10. Be content with genuinely doing your best. Fellow perfectionists: It’s really okay to stop at “good enough.” There will always be ways to improve your paper. There will always be more information that you can try to master before the test. Sometimes you have to draw the line so that you don’t exhaust yourself unnecessarily. This doesn’t mean that not trying is an option. This means that you know what you are capable of accomplishing, and you shouldn’t punish yourself for not accomplishing more.
  11. Don’t compare your successes to others’. Contentment with doing your best will keep you from holding yourself to the same standard as other people. Your abilities are not the same as everyone else’s; you have different abilities, different ways to express your uniqueness. You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) pull all-nighters to study, but that probably helps your grades overall. Other people may not experience brain fog like you do. Give yourself some grace. You know how much you’re having to manage on a daily basis. You should create standards for your academic success accordingly.
  12. Focus on the big picture goal. Balancing chronic pain and college will seem pointless if you do not remind yourself why you’re in school. I want to become a counselor so that I can help others process the struggles of their lives and move forward. Therefore, I have a reason to go to class every day that I am able. The little things of today give meaning to the big things of tomorrow. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). Be honest with yourself and with other people about why you do what you do. Keep fighting through the pain because one day someone will benefit from your efforts.

For Such A Time As This

Five years ago today, I made my first step on the journey that has taken me to places I would never have imagined. Granted, that first step was so painful that I nearly fell flat on my face. For some reason unknown to me (and to my doctors), I developed plantar fasciitis in my left foot overnight. It has persisted for the past five years, though we have tried every conservative treatment imaginable. Additionally, my scoliosis curve became severe around year two. And in the past year, I developed plantar fasciitis in my right foot, along with tendinitis in my hands and feet. Although pain–at times–seems to consume my life, it is not my story. But this is my story; this is my song- praising my Savior all the day long.

On Sunday morning September 12, 2010, the Lord awoke me with joy and anticipation of spending time in His presence. I began the day in satisfaction through reading Jesus Calling. I felt energized to go and be strengthened by other believers. Little did I know that all of these sensations would be challenged to this day, following the first step I took that morning.

In case you’re wondering, it’s not normal for someone to pinpoint the day their chronic pain began. However, my pain was so immediate–meaning I had absolutely no pain before September 12, 2010–that I couldn’t forget that day. I think it goes without saying that it’s not normal for someone under the age of 20 to experience pain for five years. It’s also not normal for every conservative measure of plantar fasciitis treatment to fail. Mayo Clinic claims, “Most people who have plantar fasciitis recover with conservative treatments in just a few months.” The fact that I have dealt with pain is ordinary; I know that everyone experiences pain in some way throughout life. But the fact that God has used such extraordinary circumstances to form my story makes me feel humbled and honored (sometimes).

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

In the famous passage of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Qoheleth identifies various human responses to life’s circumstances. For example, verse 4 identifies “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Over the past five years, I’ve felt the need to weep, but I’ve also identified my need to laugh. I’ve felt the need to mourn my situation, but I’ve also understood my need to embrace my circumstances. (Maybe not through dancing.) I’ve had numerous responses to my pain these past five years. But even though I’ve constantly changed, God never has.

Positive changes: In the first year, I finally surrendered my whole life to Christ on December 16, 2010. On that life-changing day, I truly became a follower of Christ. And in the second year, I felt God’s call to ministry. That day changed the direction of the rest of my life. Some tidbits from my quiet-time journals during those years:

May 22, 2011: The point of suffering is not escape but to hit your knees in reverence for God. Don’t focus on your own struggle or escape, but focus on the God who will carry you through every step.

August 4, 2011: I should be reminded by sharp pain that God may need to “prune my branches” and cut out the sin in my life. In sensitivity, I need to remember to be sensitive to others’ needs. I am in pain so that I can see and reach others in pain. So my pain is for my good, others’ gains, and God’s glory.

December 24, 2011: I don’t think I can handle another chronic [health] problem! [That was five chronic health problems ago. It’s amazing how God’s strength has come through for me when I am helpless and powerless.]

Not-so-positive changes: During that first year, I honestly feel like I sought God as the answer to my pain, since I was a new follower of Christ. However, as time passed, my focus changed. During the second year, I pursued academics as a way of forgetting my pain. The third year led me to seek comfort in friends before God. I spent my fourth year making MY decisions about MY future. Over this past year, I sought medical answers more than biblical answers, relief more than relationship with God. Somewhere between my first and fifth year, I lost the passion I once had for hearing God’s voice comfort me with truth.

Despite all my mistakes, God has never given up on me–even when I’ve given up on Him. C.S. Lewis describes God’s “Divine Humility”: “He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had.” When I seek God after trying everything I can think of on my own, He still accepts me when I finally return. Time after time, His grace amazes me!

I still don’t have all the answers. Obviously, there’s still more that God wants me to learn through pain. And I don’t have an easy road ahead of me: Especially within the past year, my pain has intensified and spread. (As I write this, I have a brace on my wrist, heat on my back, and ice on my feet.) So when people ask me what’s next, I can only smile, throw up my hands, and say, “I don’t know.” I’m still unsure of the exact cause and what else I can do.

Throughout my spiritual struggle with pain, I’ve often angrily asked God, “Why have You done this to me? What do You want from me?” And afterwards I would feel bad for asking those questions. But now I’m thinking that I need to ask them every day.

In the book of Esther, Haman creates a plan to kill all of the Jews, which includes Esther and Mordecai. Since Esther is queen, Mordecai asks her to speak to the king on behalf of their people: “If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).

Time is the gift of choice. We are all given 24 hours in a day to spend however we choose. Some of us are given difficult seasons of life, also to spend however we choose. Chronic pain is not a choice. The decision lies in whether I am chronically disappointed or chronically joyful, chronically overwhelmed or chronically hopeful, chronically defeated or chronically victorious. To make the best use of my time in this season of life, I want to ask God daily why He has me in this position. I want to be open to opportunities when God will answer, “For such a time as this.”

Inexpressible and Glorious Joy

If you watch the video above, you will be exposed to the power of chronic pain over emotions. Watching this entire video led me to understand why my pain seems to take over every part of my life. The biggest takeaway I got from the video was the concept of retraining the brain. By avoiding fear with each step on my hurt foot, I can potentially lessen the amount of pain I experience.

Similarly, I need to retrain my brain to avoid the negative perception I have of my pain. I’ve previously mentioned the difficulty I have in taking my first step each morning. Usually the fear I have towards that first step of the morning, keeps me in bed with a sense of discouragement. I’ve prayed countless times to be given the strength–both physical and emotional–to get out of bed. I realize now that “the joy of the Lord is [my] strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

1 Peter 1:5-9 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

5 You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 You rejoice in this,[a] though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire—may result in[b] praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 You love Him, though you have not seen Him. And though not seeing Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 because you are receiving the goal of your[c] faith, the salvation of your souls.[d]

I also need to retrain my brain spiritually; my question needs to change from “God, why have You caused me so much pain?” to “God, why have you been so good to me?” He has given me freedom from the bondage of sin and the opportunity to spend forever in His presence! Why then do I feel I am entitled to immediate healing? Jesus Himself underwent physical suffering “for the joy that lay before Him” (Hebrews 12:2). Because He saw the prize of our souls, He was willing to pay the price for them. If Jesus can experience joy in physical pain, so can I.

My goal is to retrain my brain from seeking joy despite my circumstances to seeking joy IN my circumstances.