1 in 5 to 6 Dutch people suffer from chronic pain. Yet only 16 percent know what chronic pain entails. Many people therefore also do not know how to deal with chronic pain. Experience expert Jennifer (25) gives us tips.
Can you tell us something about yourself first?
I am Jennifer, 25 years old and I have been studying biology for a while already. To be precise since 2012, so I’m in my seventh year right now. I have 4 pets: a dog, two rats, and a leopard gecko. I like to play guitar and write, but I do not really do that anymore. What I still do is watch films and series, and I love good food!
You suffer from chronic pain. Can you tell us more about that?
I have chronic abdominal complaints of which no cause can be found. As a result, I have concentration and memory problems and I sometimes feel down. It is not a depression, but it is stupid. Sometimes I just feel empty or have a lot of stomach pain, and then I do nothing. I have had stomach pain since I was 15, but that has developed. As it is now, it is about eight years. When I was 15, I probably had irritable bowel syndrome. Pills helped for a moment, but at a certain moment the pain came back. Since then, my pain has been researched extensively and now they still do not know what it is.
Have you always suffered from psychological problems due to your abdominal pain?
One year, in 2013, I could not do anything. I suffered a lot from my stomach and had many examinations and interventions for that, but nothing helped. I felt down, angry, could not study, could not attend lectures. In my opinion I have wasted a year. That is of course not true, because I have worked on myself. I have been experiencing concentration and memory problems for about 7 years now. This is because the pain costs a lot of energy. Sometimes things get better, sometimes things get worse. Then you only do the fun things, for example, but you do not have any energy left for the things that have to be done, like studying.
Have you ever been treated for your psychological problems?
Four years ago I went to the psychologist for depression and had cognitive behavioral therapy. I did not think it helped, but at the time I was not really open for it either. Now I notice in what way it has helped, and could have helped at that moment. For example, I have learned to accept my situation better. I meditate daily now, that helps me. Now I want to learn how to deal with my emotions even better and not look up so much against eating food, despite the pain.
In what ways does it affect your daily life?
I always wake up with some sort of abdominal pain. Getting up and eating something is therefore always a struggle. My abdominal pain sometimes also occurs randomly, but the pain is always getting worse with food, so eating is difficult every time. Even with my study it is sometimes difficult, for example, if I have practical days and have to be in the lab all day long. My concentration and memory problems especially trouble me when I have to learn for an exam. I can understand the material well, but I can not remember it properly. For this reason, it took me for example 6 years to pass a first-year course. These things are very difficult. Doing an internship was also very difficult last year, to work every day from 9 to half 6 in the lab and write on your thesis. I find it difficult to be proud of myself, because it all takes so long. But if I am something, it is a go-getter.
What helps you in dealing with this?
My mother really helps me, if I feel bad, I can call her. Sometimes she stimulates me, sometimes she supports me. I now also have a study coach who helps me. I use watching series as a reward when I have studied. I also have a detailed schedule for each course that really helps me to see what I have to do. In this way, I can make a planning with enough room to play, so that I can move things around when I have abdominal pain. I also take into account that I can not do anything in the morning, so I work a little longer in the evening. It took a long time before I could admit that I needed this.
Eating healthy also helps in feeling better. Especially for dinner I now eat much healthier, with more vegetables and more variation. I now actually only drink water and tea and almost never soft drinks. It also helps me to keep up with habits through an app, such as healthy eating and my sleep. And whether I read, because I like to do that, but I rarely do it. I’ve been meditating for more than 200 days every day before bedtime, by means of the Headspace app. Furthermore, when I am studying, my dog will lie on my lap, and then I can pet her, and that helps. It also helps in staying active. You have to get out of bed, because you have to feed the dog, you have to go outside, because you have to walk the dog. And she’ll come to you if you feel bad … It just helps.
What did you learn from your chronic pain?
I think I’ve become a stronger person because of it. I keep accomplishing things, even though I have abdominal pain. I have also accepted that I may not be able to do everything I want, such as a biology master. I now want to do a ‘translation’ master’s program, because that’s what I like and then I can work at times when I am able to, together with perhaps part-time lab work. Furthermore, I may have solved some psychological issues because of my abdominal pain, which I would otherwise have continued to struggle with. In the last years I have learned a lot about myself. There are plenty of people who, for example, get a burnout when they start working. I’ve had to take it slow a long time ago. I know exactly what I can and can not do, how I am and how to deal with it.