“Take a walk. Get outside. Go to the gym or to a yoga class.” These are all pieces of advice that myself, and many others who live with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, have heard from both professionals and from well-meaning friends and family. But what happens when you also have a chronic illness or physical disability that keeps you in bed or prevents you from leaving the house? These typical suggestions are no longer feasible, and, like we do with many other things — we have to get creative.
Many people with chronic illnesses or physical disabilities also have co-occurring mental health issues. Still more experience periods of depression or anxiety due to the stressors their symptoms place on them. “People thrive when they are able to move, interact with others, explore the world, feel useful, and do what brings them joy,” Rachel Gersten, licensed mental health counselor and Co-founder of Viva, told me. “Being bed- or homebound can significantly limit the ability to do all of the above, which is inevitably going to lead to a decline in mental health. It can create additional anxiety, depression, feelings of hopelessness, and can even increase the physical pain someone feels.”
So then, what can you do if you’re stuck at home or in bed due to physical symptoms, and also dealing with struggles with your mental health? Kevin Coleman, a marriage and family therapist, suggests that there are three main ways one can care for their mental health, even while dealing with physical symptoms: relationally, intellectually, and physically.
Develop a Support System and Maintain Relationships
One of the main things that both Coleman and Gersten say can be beneficial for one’s mental health is to develop and maintain supportive relationships. “Get a strong support system and have them ready for when things get really hard,” recommends Gersten. “This can include a mix of loved ones and professionals: friends, family, a partner, as well as a therapist and a great medical team.”
Coleman emphasizes that “fighting loneliness is very important [when at home or in bed], and now is the time to lean on your friends and family to get you through it.” He suggests things such as texting or FaceTiming with friends, or inviting people over. Recently, during an especially bad bout of symptoms that had me bed-bound, I posted on my social media asking for friends to send reassurances because I was feeling especially lonely, and inviting anyone who was interested to come over for a “sweatpants and snacks hangouts” in my bedroom. While it can feel really vulnerable to put yourself out there like this, it also is incredibly helpful when friends respond and show up to support you.
Keep Your Mind Busy
Another thing you can do to improve your mental health while at home or in bed is to keep your mind busy. Even if your body can’t be active, oftentimes you can occupy your mind in ways that feel fun or that distract from the situation. As Coleman states, “When you aren’t able to move your body like you normally would, it’s even more important to exercise your brain.”
My go-tos: watching a TV show or movie, listening to a podcast, or reading a book. However, you can get even more creative with other activities such as doing a puzzle or Sudoku, learning a new craft (I took up an embroidery while I had a period of time where I was primarily bed-bound earlier this year), or journaling. Gersten suggests listening to music as well, which she states is “not only fun, but scientifically proven to reduce the feeling of pain.”
Move Your Body — In Whatever Ways You Can
Even when you’re unable to leave the house or leave the bed you can still get a bit of movement in. Not only will this help keep your muscles stronger and maintain your flexibility, but it also can help release endorphins to improve your mood. Obviously, what you can do will depend on your physical symptoms and abilities, but there are many ways to move while still at home or in bed.
It may be that you are able to walk about your room or do simple stretches. It may be that is too much, but you can do neck rolls and flex and point your toes while in bed. Another great practice is deep belly breathing which not only helps calm anxiety and soothe the nervous system, but can also help with physical symptoms for people with certain types of chronic illnesses such as ankylosing spondylitis.
One of my favorite things is to put together a fun playlist on Spotify or YouTube of songs that make me happy (you can find my current playlist here), throw on some headphones, and have my own personal in-bed dance party for one, just wiggling to the music as I can. Another nice way to move the body is to do some self-massage. There are many videos available online to show you ways to do this.
Managing your mental health can be difficult even when you’re in “perfect” physical health. When you add in the physical symptoms of chronic illness or disability, especially when those symptoms cause us to be bed- or housebound, it can just exacerbate that difficulty even more. It is important to remember that this is normal to feel frustrated or upset while trying to juggle the many dimensions of your health.
“Remembering it’s okay not to be okay during these types of situations is incredibly helpful,” Gersten told me. “An important step is recognizing and accepting as much as possible…Managing [your] expectations can ensure that [you] don’t feel disappointed or like a failure. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re mentally struggling while you’re bed- or housebound.”
If you are struggling with both mental health and physical illness, consider trying some of the above suggestions. If your mental health symptoms are overwhelming, or if you’re feeling like you’re not safe, be sure to reach out to your doctor, or call a crisis line such as the 988 Lifeline, for professional help.
The Wellness Evolution Podcast
The Wellness Evolution Podcast was created as a safe environment to share stories, learnings, and tools about mindfulness, chronic illness, spirituality, and mental health. We invite you to listen to stories from patients, health care professionals, and our community members and to be inspired to open doors to new conversations about the relationship between health and wellness. Listen here.