Chronic Pain and Productivity: My Story and 3 Suggestions

When it comes to writing, many of us are aiming to maintain productivity. For those of us suffering from chronic pain, the pursuit of productivity can be even harder. This post offers my chronic pain story and 3 suggestions for dealing with chronic pain and productivity.

My Chronic Pain Story

For years I have dealt with chronic gut pain. In some instances, my pain was due to ulcers or the aftermath of bacterial infections from the field or travelling. However, the most frustrating pain I experienced was the one that didn’t have a clear cause. It started in about 7 years ago. It was inconsistent, yet consistent. The pain would surface at least 4 times a month, but didn’t follow a schedule. Most doctor’s diagnosed my condition as “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” also known as IBS.

IBS can be a super frustrating diagnosis. Why? It’s a bit general, which makes treating not so clear. There are always experimental drugs, elimination diets, and potential lifestyle tweaks, but it feels like there is no real fix for the situation. To me, hearing an IBS diagnosis felt like doctors were saying, “Nothing really is popping up so let’s go with this.” This is not to discredit my doctors. I was just very frustrated by the diagnosis and with my body.

During the first few years of my doctoral program, I lived in New York City as I completed my coursework. My pain increased during the fall of my 3rd year so I decided to seek a diagnosis of my chronic gut pain. Long story short, after 3 months of testing my doctor didn’t find clear answers and I accrued a fair amount of medical bills in the process. I gave up.

Fast forward to the last year of my doctoral program. I was living in Germany and I made a 2 week trip to the U.S. My chronic pain surfaced with a vengeance. Sure I still experienced pain a few times a month, but the strength of my episodes was nothing like what I had during my U.S. trip. When I got back to Germany, I decided to try again and seek a diagnosis. After a few weeks of intense testing, I got some answers.

It turns out I have two types of food intolerances.

The first is lactose. This was a bit frustrating because this is easily tested and I felt it could have been caught earlier; however, I didn’t exhibit the obvious symptoms of lactose intolerance except for abdominal cramping. Abdominal cramping is a common symptom of so many other things.

The second is sorbitol. Sorbitol is an alcohol sugar. It’s found in a lot of things. It’s a common sugar substitute and popular in ‘diet’ products’, but it is also naturally occurring (at different levels) in fruits like pears, apples, peaches, and dates. Sorbitol is kind of everywhere, which explains why it was hard to figure out what was causing some of the pain that I was having. I really can’t avoid sorbitol, but I can manage the amounts I consume.

These diagnoses have tremendously improved my chronic gut pain. Has my chronic gut pain been cured? No, I still get pain from time to time, but it’s definitely not as bad as before. I feel extremely grateful for that.

Still, I only received my diagnoses towards the end of writing my dissertation. One month before I submitted to be exact. For the vast majority of writing my dissertation, I had to manage my chronic pain and writing productivity.

The next section offers my 3 suggestions on how to manage chronic pain and productivity.

3 Suggestions

These three suggestions won’t tell you how to make the pain go away (I wish I could help with that!).  These suggestions target dealing with the pain that is there or its aftermath. I hope they are helpful.

1. Finding Financial Aid

This might seem like an odd one, but bear with me.

As I mentioned before, I accrued a fair amount of doctor and hospital bills when trying to diagnose my chronic pain in the United States. Even though I was fortunate to have a multi-year fellowship with health insurance, my stipend, savings, and insurance could not cover the thousands of dollars of medical fees I had to pay.

One afternoon as I was sifting through my mountain of bills, I had to call on of the hospitals where I had a procedure done. I don’t remember the reason for the call, but I do remember speaking with a super helpful person. This individual discreetly informed me that many hospitals (including the one I was calling) offer income-based financial aid. The contact information for this service is not always readily available and the application procedures can be a bit bizarre, but there is potential for this type of assistance.

After a bit of digging around, I found the necessary contact details and application procedures for my hospital and faxed in my application. A few weeks letter, I was notified that financial aid covered one of my major bills. It was a huge relief and I felt that I could better focus on my schooling after receiving the news.

If you have chronic pain, medical expenses could be a huge source of stress, which will likely impact your productivity. If you have hospital bills that exceed your financial capacity, I suggest seeking out the financial aid policies of your hospital. While such assistance won’t get rid of the pain, it can potentially alleviate added mental and financial stress.

2. Planning for Pain

This suggestion might seem a bit obvious, but it’s a bit trickier to put into practice.

I knew I was going to be in pain multiple times a month. I didn’t know when it would happen or the severity, but it was going to happen. During the first years of my doctoral program, the pain really threw off my productivity. I would have a plan, the pain came, and then my plans were thrown off. This meant that I was scrambling to complete assignments, working at all times when I wasn’t in pain, and getting increasingly stressed and overwhelmed.

It was during the writing phase of my doctoral program, when I started to plan for pain more effectively. Personally, planning for pain meant constantly doing three things.

First, I gave myself more time to complete tasks and goals. Typically, I would give myself 50% more time than I needed to complete writing goals. The key here is to have a decent handle on how long a writing goal might take to accomplish.  For example, if a certain dissertation section would take me 2 weeks to write, I would give myself 3 weeks.

Check out my blog post on measuring writing productivity for more information on setting writing goals.

Second, I broke down all my writing goals into actionable tasks. Breaking down goals into tasks helped me to shift and adjust items when my pain would strike.

Check out my blog post on dealing with challenging tasks for more information.

Third, I made and used incremental action plans. If my pain was not so strong or was starting to subside, I employed an incremental action plan to get back into productivity mode. Using my list of actionable tasks, I would first focus on easy tasks. Smalls wins work for my morale and they also help me test how much work I can handle doing.

If I am working on a more challenging goal, then I would see if I could make incremental progress on parts of certain actionable tasks. For example, if my task was to read and review 3 sources, I would start with the easy parts of the task, like finding the sources and downloading/printing them. If I felt up for more work, then I would read the abstracts. If all was going well, then I read and one entire source and write down notes. And so on.

Applying these three things helped me to better plan for pain and maintain productivity.

3. Creating a List of Self-Care Rituals

When my pain would strike (especially the severe episodes), I felt like I couldn’t do much. Even when I planned for pain and knew my schedule wasn’t taking a hit, the pain stressed me out. Eventually, I decided to be a bit more conscientious about what I would do if I was in pain.

I created a list of go-to self-care rituals when the pain would strike. Here are a few things on my list:

  1. Eat Healthy, Soothing Food: This was tricky with chronic gut pain, but I did have some foods that usually didn’t bring about pain or make it worse. For me, these foods were oatmeal and clear brothy soups. If I wasn’t up for cooking, I would order pho. I tried to keep it healthy because eating a lot of processed, greasy, or oily foods made me feel worse.
  2. Watch Light Shows on Netflix: I don’t watch a lot of TV, but it’s the one thing that helps me stop thinking about my pain. When I am in pain, I usually watch or re-watch fairly light, sitcom-y shows.
  3. Sleep: Allowing myself to go to bed earlier than usual, nap during the day, or sleep without setting the alarm clock is probably my go-to self-care ritual when I’m in severe pain.

My self-care rituals are similar to what you might find if you google ‘ways to manage stress and be productive. For me, the most important thing was the list itself. This list was a way for me to mentally accept that I was in pain and that the only thing I could do effectively in that moment was to take care of myself.

Closing Thoughts

Maintaining productivity while dealing with chronic pain is tough. It can be especially hard if you don’t know why you are in pain. Add in medical expenses, looming deadlines, and general frustrations about your pain, and you probably now have additional stress on top of your chronic pain.

Often stress can exacerbate pain. It did in my case. My 3 suggestions targeted some key stressors and offered possibilities on how to manage them. If you have to deal with chronic pain, I hope this post offered something useful to you. At the very least, know you are not alone.

If something you read here resonated with you, let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!



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  • Heck. I suffer with IBS and it sucks too. I’ve had it for over two years, and it’s just horrible to live with. I get up to 3 or 4 attacks a day and it can really be debilitating and depressing sometimes. I thought with all this stuff going on and with school cancelled it would lower my stress(working from home and all) but it’s still the same crap. Everyday. Articles like these help though. This solution may no be my solution but your words do give hope to us out here. Thanks!

    • Hi Harrison! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I can empathize. My stress level has not lowered due to COVID-19 and my chronic pain has been flaring up a lot recently. You’re definitely not alone and it’s a challenging time. I’m glad this post offered some hope and your comment is motivating me to write more. Thanks for that and I hope the attacks ease up.

  • Hello, there. I just wanted to say THANK YOU for your incredibly helpful articles on staying organized and productive while writing a dissertation and living with chronic pain. Like yourself, I became ill after starting grad school. Now, I have numerous neurological conditions and, also like yourself, lived in diagnosis limbo for several years. Docs kept saying fibromyalgia, and I ended up with permanent damage to my nervous system, liver, and pancreas before anyone took it really seriously. It didn’t help that I was a woman in my 30s and “A type” personality. My docs now believe it is MS, and I’m finally getting some answers and a treatment plan that works for me. BUT the symptoms are unpredictable. Right now, I see in triplicate off and on and have vision and hearing loss on one side, along with right sided weakness, balance issues, etc., but that could change next week.

    So, your advice on blocking out time for flares by padding your schedule is smart. I also appreciate how you give yourself permission to sleep, plan your diet, and watch comfort TV when you’re having a flare. It feels like being given permission to not be okay sometimes, and we just need that. I have a tendency to berate myself, like so many people with chronic illness, which just makes it worse.

    I also want to second your advice on medical financial aid. Like yourself, my diagnosis and treatment got expensive, and that aid was a lifesaver. There are also programs like Medicaid to help with prescriptions and dental needs out there.

    I also read your article on staying organized with a blank working Word document alongside your chapter/using a moleskin journal/utilizing Google calendar all together as a whole system, and that is really going to help me, too. I was already writing my chapters in segments, but I’d never thought of the side by side method when reorganizing (so helpful!). It’s hard to find advice on writing the dissertation when your work is with documents and not lab results (I’m an English major), so I’m so glad I found you!

    Right now, I feel like I’m in dissertation he’ll, and reading success stories like yours inspires people like me that it can be done.

    Again, I appreciate your practical, applicable, organized, and most importantly kind advice. Thank you!

    • Hi Michelle! First off, thank you so much for sharing your story with me and fellow readers. Navigating diagnosis limbo is so challenging, physically and mentally, on top of graduate school. I am so happy that you are getting some answers. I know it takes a lot of work to advocate for your health, especially when it comes to chronic conditions with sporadic onsets. You’re doing a lot! Second, thank you for your kind words. They mean a lot and I’m so happy that sharing my story and process can help your journey. You’re not alone. Sometimes (or often!) we find ourselves at challenging crossroads when we prioritize our health in graduate school, but I feel it’s essential to do so. Don’t hesitate to reach out if I can help. You got this!

Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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