Being diagnosed with a chronic illness changes your life. On one hand, you’re happy to have an answer for what’s been making you feel so badly, but on the other hand, you have a new reality to adjust to. One of those realities is learning what to do during a flare. Sometimes you can feel them coming on. Sometimes they come out of left field, leveling you in a moment.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2012, so I’ve had my share of flares to contend with. The kind that knock you down and make you feel like you’re made of lead, that hurt so badly all you can do is curl into a ball, and that make it seem like you’ll never feel normal again. It’s an all out assault on you physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Being in a flare can drain you of more than energy. You can barely get out of bed, forget any desire to take a shower or get dressed. Doing anything but laying down and binging your favorite show seems impossible. I’ve been there and know what you’re going through.
What is a flare?
A flare is when your disease becomes active and rears its ugly head with any number of symptoms from nausea and pain to fatigue and brain fog. Flare days make it feel like your disease is in control and can make you feel powerless. Different factors trigger flares depending on your body because everyone’s experience with their disease is different. For me, that was the most frustrating part — figuring out what triggers my flares and how to soothe them. Don’t worry! I’m here to help you find your way through what feels like a minefield of high stakes cause-and-effect.
What to do when your chronic illness flares:
When you aren’t feeling well, you want to focus on foods that are easy on your digestion but also offer some nutrition. Mashed potatoes that have cauliflower is a good example. Simply sub cauliflower for half of the potatoes when you boil them. I use vegan butter and plain almond milk to avoid dairy which is inflammatory and can prolong a flare. Another option is toasting some white bread and adding hummus, avocado, or a nut butter for healthy fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals. When I want something sweet that is a nutrition bomb, I go for a smoothie. Put almond milk, vegan protein powder, and frozen fruit in a blender and you’re in business. I’ve had good success with smoothies because everything is liquified, making them easy on my system.
Hydration is also extremely important to pay attention to. When your illness is active, your body is under a lot of stress. Proper hydration assists in nutrient absorption, regulates body temperature, and replaces fluids lost after vomiting or diarrhea. If you get tired of water, try adding lemon, brewing decaf tea, or even eating whole fruit popsicles. Do your best to avoid anything with sugar which will aggravate inflammation. Check out my post on dehydration and malnutrition for the products I use to take care of myself.
I cannot overstate how much influence sleep has on your health. Studies show that poor sleep is strongly linked to inflammation in the digestive tract. As a matter of fact, sleep deprived people with Crohn’s relapse twice as often. TWICE as often! The common recommendation is 7-8 hours a night for adults. I always remind myself that that’s 7-8 hours actually asleep, not just in bed. For example, getting into bed at 10:00 and the alarm going off at 6:00 does not count as 8 hours. It takes me a while to go to sleep, so if my alarm goes off at 6:00, I’m in bed at 9:15 or so. This has made a huge difference in how I feel day to day.
While you sleep, your brain gets a chance to clear out the day, hormones that repair damage in the body release, and breathing and heart rate slow down and get a chance to rest. Not only does sleep help those of us with inflammation issues, it helps with heart disease, aging, and healing all around. What’s not to love?
The quality of your sleep is just as important as the quantity. No screens in bed, make your room as dark as possible or wear a sleep mask, keep the temperature on the cooler side if you can, and play some ambient sound as a bonus. When you take care of how you sleep in addition to how much, you’ll see additional benefits.
Bottom line: when you’re in a flare, hit the hay!
Pain Management Without Medication
If you’re like me, you’re not a fan of prescription pain killers, muscle relaxers, and anti-nausea medications. While I use them when a flare is particularly bad, I’ve developed other habits that keep me from needing them very often. My main line of defense: coziness. I’ve found that if I can make myself cozy, I can usually get by with some Tylenol.
My number one weapon of choice is a warm, fuzzy blanket. I have one that I got for $9 at Costco a few years back that is the ULTIMATE in comfort. Blankets can go two ways: snag one at a discount chain like HomeGoods or splurge on one at Pottery Barn. Choose your own adventure! While I dream of $80 luxury blankets, my Costco friend has done me right all these years. This is an area where I encourage you to do what’s right for you. I’m more interested in one that’s bigger than most and soft as a cloud while aesthetics aren’t as important. For you, it might be that you want something so gorgeous it makes you go gaga every time you lay eyes on it. Find the blanket for you and you’ll start feeling better right then and there.
Adding to the cozy and warm, I have some big, thick socks that keep me comfy and toasty. I have also invested in some loungewear that’s on the nicer side. Turns out, when I have sweatpants that aren’t huge grey monstrosities, it does wonders for me mentally and emotionally. I don’t like leggings during a flare because I don’t want anything so tight. This is where joggers come in. A nicer pair of jogger sweat pants keep me feeling somewhat put together and gives me the little boost I want so I don’t completely fall apart.
Mental and Emotional Health
When you have a chronic illness, you spend a lot of time learning how to take care of yourself physically. Once you have that down, the next step is learning how to care for your mental and emotional health. Being sick all the time, going to the doctor regularly, and sometimes being limited in what you can do vs. what you want to do all take a toll mentally and emotionally. There are things you can do to take care of your whole self.
Embrace the suck. That’s right. Staying positive is important, but sometimes it’s just as important to look at your situation and admit the reality: this sucks. Once you embrace the suck, you can begin learning how to navigate around and through it. This is not a contest. Sure, there are people sicker than you and worse off than you. That does not negate the fact that your illness, especially when you’re in a flare, is also bad. Embrace the suck so you can move along.
Be kind to yourself and find the humor. Do not ever feel guilty for needing to take a day (or two or three…) to take care of yourself during a flare. You are not “wasting” the day….you are healing. There is a huge difference. As you rest and heal, find some humor in it all. With a disease like Crohn’s, there’s an abundance of restroom jokes we can make. Follow humor accounts on social media and laugh together about this dumb situation with a community of likeminded people. It’ll do wonders for your spirit.
What to Do About Work or School
This one is a doozie. First off, you are legally protected in the U.S. You cannot be fired because of a medical condition. Your privacy is also protected; you do not have to disclose your medical information to your employer. That being said, I have found that sharing my condition and the reality of its effect on my life has helped me when I’ve had to take all of my sick days allotted to me. My bosses have all been super understanding, and it helps me make sure that there aren’t any questions about my dedication to my job. I totally get that I have been lucky and that not all bosses will react the way mine have. All I know is my experience and that most people are good and want to help.
For school in the US, students also have protections. If your child goes to a public school, you can get a plan in place called a 504 (five oh four). This is a document that helps your child academically by making modifications for his or her specific illness. For example, a student with Crohn’s can go to the restroom without asking permission and would have a pass they show the teacher as they leave the room. This prevents any accidents from happening in the classroom. You can contact your child’s counselor to begin the process. I also recommend talking with your child’s teachers to share what your child’s illness is, what it’s like for a kid with that illness, and how the teacher can help day to day. If absences begin to accumulate, create a system for getting work so that your child does not fall behind.
The Last Thing You Need to Know about Flares
During a flare, put yourself first. Cancel or reschedule any commitments you have, ask for help, and prioritize your health. Once you’re back to normal, you can resume everything.
How about you? Do you know your triggers? Any other tips to help soothe the beast that is the flare? Comment below to let us know, and share this post with someone who could benefit. You never know who you might help!