How to Develop a Creative Practice to Cope with Chronic Pain

The author cultivated a craft that helps distract from her pain, and you can, too.

In Part 1 of this series, I shared my philosophy of creativity as a practice to help cope with chronic pain (If you haven’t read it, head here to catch up). In this piece, I’ll dive deeper into a creative practice I adore—quilting—to show you how it helps me manage fibromyalgia and its myriad of symptoms, and how you can develop your own healing creative practice.

When we approach creativity as a practice instead of focusing on the finished product as our only measure of success, we can see how taking baby steps is valuable. We spot opportunities to learn or collaborate, and we relish progress at each step. We learn to appreciate every moment on the path.

Watch an April 2020 Facebook Live session with Jenni Grover on crafting to cope with chronic pain.

The same is true with pain management: Every bit of relief helps. Every small thing we do to manage pain has value. When we’re mindful of how much relief we get from each small effort, instead of focusing only on a “cure,” then we can enjoy satisfaction even if we still have symptoms.

This is how I believe we build resilience, a necessary trait if we’re going to craft incredible lives in spite of pain.

The author, Jenni Grover, happily lying on one of her quilts - a hobby she never knew she loved before her chronic pain diagnosis.

How to Choose a Creative Practice

Everyone can nurture their inner creativity. Even if you don’t have an art form you’ve mastered, or a craft you’ve practiced for years, it’s possible to cultivate a creative practice.

Maybe you had a hobby as a child and want to try it again, like leatherwork or beading. Maybe you already love a practice, such as journaling, which you can pour energy into. Maybe there’s a daily habit you want to make more fun, like cooking. Remember—this practice is for you, so don’t let any past criticism from others (or yourself!) hold you back.

Sometimes, the creative practice chooses you, like me and quilting. A friend who understood my passion for color and pattern convinced me to give it a try, and from the first moment, I was hooked! Now I’m not just a quilter, but I also serve on the board of the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild and write for Quiltfolk magazine!

There’s a lesson in resilience here: Stay open to unexpected possibilities, even when other opportunities seem to fade, because you never know how life-changing they’ll be.

Creating a quilt requires a series of overlapping steps. Pain management is the same, an opportunity to work toward a goal by taking things piece by piece. By looking at the quilting process objectively, I can see lessons that apply to pain management practice, too.

Planning a Project

When I start a quilt, I think about many things. Who am I making this for? How will they use it? What’s the color scheme? I do lots of research online and within my network of friends and colleagues. Sometimes I create a mood board on Pinterest to gather ideas.

Likewise, as you work on your pain management practice, it’s a good idea to do your homework and find a place to gather ideas.

"I'm so thankful to have a house with a garage so i can do stuff like this!" says the author Jenni Grover of this quilt basting photo. "Basting is layering the top of a quilt with batting and a backing before it is assembled."

Setting Up Your Space

My home studio is where I write and quilt, so it’s organized for efficiency and comfort. There’s a cozy chair for thinking and a craft table at an ergonomically correct height. My tools and materials are organized to be within reach. The space is filled with color, plants, and whimsy, which is invigorating.

You can modify your home, car, office—any space—to provide comfort, positive energy, and pain relief. For example, in the past, I’ve hired an ergonomic expert to review my home office and car and adapt them healthfully. Some insurance plans cover this cost. You can also check out PPM’s posture advice.

Finding Materials

My quilts are very scrappy, so I keep a big fabric stash and I’m always on the hunt for options. I check out craft and thrift stores wherever I travel; things I find on the road are extra-special. (I stock up on items I know I’ll be able to use when I find them because sometimes, I’m not able to travel—or even run errands.) When I need a particular color or pattern, I ask friends; knowing their fabrics are woven into my projects makes me so happy!

With pain, you’ll also need lots of strategies and items that bring comfort. Stay open to possibilities that come from left field and use your personal network to boost your “stash” of pain-relieving tricks. (For example, I always thought I needed a special ice pack for back pain flare-ups until a friend recommended a jumbo bag of frozen peas. It’s a cheap option and honestly, the best ice pack I’ve ever had!)

Securing Tools

My quilting tools are organized on a pegboard and in labeled containers so I can always find what I need. Sometimes I’ll splurge on a specialty tool, but mostly I rely on the same few tools for every project. Maintaining them is essential; I sharpen my scissors regularly, and I stock up on my favorite needles when they’re on sale. Sometimes, I’ll borrow an expensive tool I think I’ll use just once, or to try before I buy my own. I order most of my tools online; when my mail carrier delivers a package of supplies, I do a little happy dance!

Your pain management tools are vital, so organize and take good care of them. These can include medications, assistive devices, exercise equipment, orthotics, TENS units, portable gel packs—anything that provides relief. (More on pain-relieving gadgets.)

Creating the Components

Quilt blocks are the essential component of a quilt; with every block, I hone my techniques and play with color combos until it’s just right. Each block is a work of art, plus all the pieces need to fit together, so I stand back to get the big picture, too. There’s a lot of physicality in sewing, so I pace myself to manage my pain.

Pacing is an excellent strategy to cultivate when living with chronic pain. You may want to race through to the next thing when you’ve had a good day, but slowing down and taking breaks to rest and recharge can help in the long run. Better to only make one quilt block each day and feel well, than to make 10 one day and be floored by a flare-up the next day.

Putting creativity into pain management can not only distract but uncover hidden talents. One of the author's finished products.

Pausing to Reflect

Speaking of breaks, it’s powerful to pause periodically and think about how your project is going. Sometimes, I realize that a color I’ve chosen isn’t working, or my stitches are uneven in one area and I want to re-do them.

It’s the same with pain management: over time, our bodies change, including the way we respond and react to pain. In the same manner, the options available to us change, and it’s a good idea to push pause periodically to review how things are going. What’s the big picture look like? Do you need to talk to your doctor about changing an aspect of your treatment routine?  

Putting it All Together

Finally, I get to sew all the blocks together to make a quilt top, and I can take the final steps to quilt it with a pretty backing fabric and a fluffy center. When my quilt is finished, I cuddle with it to give it some love and energy before I send it to its recipient. I savor this moment to admire my work, to laugh about my mistakes, to relish in its completion.

While your pain journey may not have a precise end, you will enjoy successes along the path—and it’s important to celebrate them. Share your joyful moments with loved ones, who will appreciate how hard you’ve worked. And relish in the fact that you’re taking great care of yourself in spite of pain.

Updated on: 04/17/20
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Put Your Creativity into Managing Chronic Pain