How Chronic Illness Ruins Your Motivation (and what to do about it)

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If you’ve been ill for any period of time, you know that it’s more difficult to do things you need to do or even enjoy. Usually, when you get better, your energy and motivation levels improve also.

Chronic illness makes that equation slightly more complex.

Even when the pain leaves, the motivation levels may stay as low as they were when you were ill. If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, you may wonder why, beyond the clearest answer – “depression”.

How chronic illness ruins motivation

Robert Malenka of Stanford University and his colleagues studied chronic pain in mice. They showed that persistent pain resulted in mice being less and less likely to work for food in comparison to their pain-free friends.

Long-term pain (in this case, a week for the mice), resulted in nerve-cell changes in the nucleus accumbens which is important for processing reward and reinforcement.

When the pain was relieved, the mice were still less willing to work for food even if they were hungry.

The researchers asked if they did not work for food because…

  1. their pain was too severe?
  2. they no longer valued food as much?
  3. they lacked motivation?

More tests showed that they could walk fine and still valued food. Their pain was relieved. They lacked motivation.

Although Dr. Malenka’s study was valuable, it may not be best to directly translate these findings to humans. What we can take from this is that long-term pain seems to reduce motivation even after the pain has left.

There seems to be a slight edge taken off life when you’re in pain because you grow to expect the pain to continue. More tasks appear futile because they were difficult or unable to be completed in the past.

Moreover, we must also be aware of the complex intertwining with depression, fatigue and emotional tiredness that comes with living with an illness for a long period of time. Quite literally, it can change you physically and mentally.

What can we do about it?

Now we know that chronic pain can influence motivation even when the pain isn’t there, we can start with the first tip:

  1. Forgive yourself

There are days when pain isn’t as bad but we still don’t want to do anything. Now we know why.

To stop yourself from falling victim to the useless command of “just snap out of it!”, understand that it’s more important to be on your own team and to forgive yourself if things don’t always go to plan.

2. Start small…

…and stay small.

I’ve long been an advocate of making small, healthier changes that you can do every day. They are more sustainable, more enjoyable, easier to do and easier to fit into the day. Not everything needs to be a 100% effort – and they’re useless if you can rarely put in that effort.

For example:

  1. 5 minute daily walks
  2. 5 minute meditation
  3. 20 minutes of reading

The daily actions vary from person to person. Some people can manage 30 minutes of walking a day, other people find it difficult to walk to the kitchen sometimes. No need to feel ashamed or arrogant about whatever stage we’re at.

What does “stay small” mean?

It means, on pain-free days or simply days that you feel good, you may not want to take advantage of that and do everything you’ve hoped for. It feeds into the boom and bust cycle of pain management.

Pain ratings:

Day 1: 5/10 | Day 2: 6/10 | Day 3: 4/10 | Day 4: 1/10 NOW WE RUN A MARATHON WHILE COOKING FOR 100 PEOPLE

Day 5: 9/10 – We do nothing.

And repeat.

We want to have a reasonable amount of consistency in our days so that we can consistently feel rewarded for our efforts regardless of our pain levels. That is easier said than done but still possible to a degree.

If we feed into the boom and bust cycle, even those days where your body doesn’t feel like it’s on fire can result in us doing very little.

3. Take time to slow down

Some days, all the medication or tips in the world can’t really help us. But we can try our best to take some time to ourselves and slow down just a bit.

Whether that is through:

  • Taking a few deep breaths
  • Stroking our hands lightly
  • Eating and drinking mindfully
  • Hugging a teddy bear (or person… subject to availability, of course)

We can experiment with healthy ways to stop ourselves from getting lost in the self-hatred or anxiety that comes from a lack of motivation and depression.

Why bother?

Chronic pain often makes us ask ourselves – why bother? We can very easily build resentment towards our condition and ourselves. Who doesn’t want to have more control over their lives?

I won’t tell you that you should feel a certain way after reading this. I certainly won’t say that you should feel motivated. However, do take away that small, sustainable changes can be a healthy way to manage pain and our motivation levels.

To end, I quote Toni Bernhard…

May you make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.


As always, thank you for reading!

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Further reading:

12 Ways to Cope with Chronic Pain and Depression

Decreased motivation during chronic pain requires long-term depression in the nucleus accumbens

Study reveals brain mechanism behind chronic pain’s sapping of motivation

4 Ways To Be Happy for Other People

It’s easy to feel bad about other people’s achievements. We compare ourselves to their personal position in life (as though life is a straight line with a finish!) and usually note the bad stuff.

“She’s got this wonderful job – I’m stuck here!”

“He’s in really good shape and I’ve just finished a burger and chips with plenty of regret on the side”

Whatever it is, it tends to follow the pattern of “they’ve done x, I haven’t done x so I suck”.

This kind of thinking pattern sucks out a lot of joy from every interaction.

Our joy becomes inauthentic, we dislike ourselves because of what someone else has done and the other person may feel guilty for sharing their happiness.

Instead, we can practice mudita or appreciative joy.

Here are four skills we can slowly develop to increase the amount of happiness we have for other people!

  1.  Empathy goes both ways

Empathy is usually spoken about in terms of making sense of another person’s suffering. We step into their shoes to experience the path they walk in order to treat them better in the future.

But really, empathy is a neutral term. It is:

The capacity to understand and share the feelings of others ~ google 2017

Meaning we can do the same for happiness as we can for sadness. And don’t worry, you’re not stealing happiness from them the same way you’re not taking sadness from someone by simply being empathetic.

It’s the result of the empathy which tells you whether you’ve been kind and helpful.

We can develop empathy in a variety of ways. For now, I’ll pass you onto the lovely book Empathy by Roman Krznaric

2. Start with those we do not have a complicated relationship with

Oddly enough, it’s those closest to us which may cause us the most sadness. The self-comparison is often that bit more intense.

But when we start with people our relationship isn’t too complicated with, we reduce the chances of feeling envious or frustrated because we see less of their lives (and have less to compare ourselves too).

So this can be a distant friend or an acquaintance. We take ourselves out of the equation and simply experience the happiness that comes from someone else’s joy.

When we start practising appreciative joy towards people who are closer to us, that feeling becomes more intense and valuable. We’re likely to understand just how much someone wanted that job or how hard they worked to achieve the results they did.

The extra context, instead of inspiring envy, intensifies the joy.

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Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

3. Keep your ego in check

Ego is the Enemy says Ryan Holiday and in many respects, I agree. Especially when it comes to being happy for other people.

When the feelings of jealousy and frustration arise due to someone else’s happiness, much of it can be attributed to our ego being starved for attention and jealousy is its way of taking it back.

It doesn’t care whether it brings sadness or happiness, all it wants is attention.

It’s incredibly difficult to be genuinely happy for another person and at the same time be completely self-absorbed.

So when you notice those feelings arise you can ask yourself: am I simply craving attention? The answer is likely “yes”. If it is, you can gently return you attention to the other person’s happiness.

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Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

4. Enjoy being happy

It may be tempting to think something along the lines of “I don’t deserve to be happy because someone else is happy!”

That’s just the comparison monster creeping in again. And it’s speaking complete tosh.

When do you deserve to be happy, then? When you’ve crushed everyone around you with your unwavering financial success? When everyone in the world is happy for you and you’re too cool to smile and say thanks?

Forget about whether you deserve to be happy by rejoicing in someone else’s joy.

What you’re doing is a lovely act of compassion. You’re allowing yourself to calm the feelings of envy and you’re directing even more happiness and pride in someone else’s path.

How wonderful is that?

And that is appreciative joy. A remarkably simple practice but one which brings plenty of happiness to everyone who experiences it.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

Who are you happy for? 

Comment down below :)

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

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How to Find Peace in Sadness

Avoiding difficult emotions is a normal reaction.

If we’re sad, we want to be happy.

If we’re frustrated, we wish we weren’t.

If we’re disappointed, we want to feel fulfilled again.

When the blues come calling, we want to get away from this state as quickly as possible.

How do we confront these difficult emotions instead of letting them generate fear and anxiety? How do we watch them and accept that they’re a normal part of our lives?

1. Accept different emotions are normal

This seems painfully obvious but it’s worth the reminder. We can’t be happy all the time nor can we be extremely peaceful all the time.

Accepting this can be key to feeling OK and feeling satisfied. It’s all part of the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.

When we slowly come to accept this, we offer less resistance towards ourselves in moments of difficulty. This can actually cause these negative emotions to leave us quicker.

We’ll experience different emotions all the time. And that’s perfectly fine.

2. Greet your sadness as a friend

I first came across this idea from Toni Bernhard who recommends that we see our emotions as friends that have come to stay – usually uninvited.

Even though we may be annoyed by this in real life, we can still treat them with kindness and in turn we treat ourselves with kindness.

The idea behind this is simple: if we treat our emotions as friends, we treat ourselves with compassion. Sadness feeds off sadness. With compassion, sadness gets bored and leaves. Maybe next time he won’t stay as long!

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Quiet contemplation I suppose. Maybe he’s saying hello to sadness. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

3. Don’t order yourself around

“I shouldn’t feel sad!”

“I shouldn’t feel angry, it was a meaningless interaction!”

“I shouldn’t feel this or that – I should only feel that!”

Now imagine saying this to a child about happiness … or anything else.

Why should we feel any kind of way? We can literally just experience emotions without trying to invalidate them.

Plus if we order ourselves to stop feeling a particular way, it’s just a first class ticket to feeling sad again!

Try removing the word “should” from your sentences when talking about how you feel. Accept them and with time, it’ll leave.

(That’s why stuff like “just be happy!” is pretty meaningless or worse yet, detrimental to actually feeling happy. Who wants to be under pressure to smile!)

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“I’m not a human… that’s pretty cool. I also don’t know why I’ve been included here but that’s fine.”

4. Let yourself be vulnerable

Often, a reason why we struggle to accept different emotions is because we’re trying to present ourself in a particular light. Whether that’s to our friends or family. Or towards ourselves.

But with some privacy, we can experience whatever we want.

Dismiss the “I must be strong” mindset because sadness, crying, frustration aren’t signs of weakness!

If you fall, we’ll catch you :)

And with this, we can find some peace in sadness. We don’t exhaust ourselves running away because that just means it’ll keep chasing us. Rather, we accept it’s a normal experience and most importantly:

Sadness, like all moods and emotions, are impermanent.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

How do you handle sadness?  Do you think it’s healthy?

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

If you liked this post, share it with others!