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.