Put Your Creativity into Managing Chronic Pain

How Jenni Grover, founder of ChronicBabe, cultivated her artistic curiosity to boost resilience.


When my pain is at its worst, it can be hard to resist the urge to clench my entire body. It’s like I’m bracing myself against the pain, trying to squeeze it out of my limbs.

But WOW – that doesn’t work. And when I get stuck in that mode, it makes my pain worse. So when those flares come on, I learned to do something else that calms my body: I quilt.

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

Sounds counterintuitive, right? All those little stitches; all that focused concentration. Has to be hard on the body.But in small doses, quilting is my pain medicine. Playing with a pile of beautiful fabrics, admiring the colors and patterns, gives my mind a thing to do other than ruminate. There’s a lot of movement in quilting, which helps me avoid cramping: standing up to walk to the cutting table, sitting down to sew, pausing to iron, hunting in my craft closet for just the right color of thread. Plus, stabbing something over and over again with a needle lets me take out some of my aggression.

The author with one of her quilts, which she finished at a Chicago Modern Quilt Guild retreat. "It was my first time free-motion quilting and I got a lot of help from friends there!" she says.

Cultivating “Creative Resilience”

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 25 and I often experience symptoms of pain, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, and more. Finding creative ways to cope with this chronic condition has helped me to keep working, nourished a passion for advocacy that I didn’t know I had, and provided an outlet for my emotions. Creativity has helped me grow my sense of resilience—my unshakable belief that I can keep bouncing back when life knocks me down. 

This concept is known as “creative resilience.” It represents the ability to apply the principles of creativity to chronic pain or illness and to use those approaches to cope. When this effort is repeated over and over, I have found that one can gain confidence and an ability to thrive despite the pain.

Sometimes people resist being called “Creative” with a capital C, but truly, anyone can get creative with their pain. Most people are taught as children to color within the lines or to not waste energy on frivolous making, so they associate being creative with making art. But when I tell my clients to “get creative” I’m not talking about “making a finished product.” I’m talking about thinking differently about their pain or illness experience. (As part of my ChronicBabe project, I’ve coached a few hundred individuals with chronic conditions.)

How I Apply Creative Principles to My Self-Care Plan

Below are five creative principles I have used, and I urge you to try applying them to your own pain management practice. If five seems daunting, pick just one to start with. Spend a few minutes each day practicing the principle. Notice how it makes you feel. You might find it helpful to write down those feelings; why not create a creative resilience journal to track your progress?

Find or create resources

When we’re stuck in pain, we may lose the ability to work or socialize. Our finances may take a plunge, or we might feel lonely. To counteract those feelings, we need to get creative. When a painter runs out of green paint, she may mix yellow and blue to create the color she needs. Or she might search all the local stores and eventually order online to find the perfect paintbrush.

How can YOU go hunting for resources? If your funds are low, are there free community programs you can explore, or does your farmer’s market match food stamp benefits? If you’re wishing for more support but hate Facebook, can you create your own online support group?

Establish boundaries or constraints

Creators often use constraints to challenge themselves, like draw a tomato but in black-and-white, or only sew garments that have pockets (that one’s my current favorite).

How can you use boundaries or constraints in pain management? Maybe you choose to take medication but only if you’ve meditated for 20 minutes without relief. Or perhaps you love to binge-watch Netflix when you’re flared up, but your days are slipping by...you might choose to limit yourself to just one hour of TV a day.

In my experience, setting boundaries around how much time I spend on social media helps me reserve energy for creative projects. Sometimes I even take week-long social media breaks!

Stay curious

It’s easy to fall into a routine (or a rut). But there’s a world of resources and approaches out there, so cultivating curiosity is essential. Like a photographer who spends hours wandering a new city to find the most unique image to capture, you can stay open as you search for pain management techniques.

Maybe there are yoga poses that could provide relief, new plant-based medicines to try, fresh spiritual practices to soothe your soul...you never know what might work!

When I first started quilting, I was curious to learn more modern techniques...which led me to join the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild, where I’ve learned a lot and made many excellent friends. That curiosity has really paid off!

The author with some of her final products. Image by Alix Kramer.

Love your mistakes

Even the best writers own erasers. If you cultivate a creative stance and try new things, you’re going to make mistakes. That’s okay. Sometimes you can back up and start over, but when you can’t, embrace your mistakes. Like this dog who’s an accidental rainbow, your screw-up might yield beautiful results.

You might learn a lesson, or you might happen upon a new approach that works. You might even be able to shape the experience into a story that teaches others. (Ahem, that’s how I made my career change when I launched ChronicBabe.com.)

Practice every dang day!

I didn’t sit down the first time at a sewing machine and create a quilt; I ruined many cute pieces of fabric before I could even sew a straight line. It takes practice to get good at making or doing a new thing. Likewise, you will need to practice consistently to adjust your mindset and begin to use these creative principles to cope with pain.

When you think of creativity as a practice—a skill you’re growing day by day—the pressure eases up. You don’t have to become a perfect maker or doer of things; you can be an imperfect, messy, creative person who keeps trying, day after day, to craft a better life in spite of chronic pain.


The author founder of ChronicBabe.com. Photo taken by Alix Kramer.

In Fall 2019, Jenni will launch a new project focused on creative resilience. Learn more at JenniGrover.com/create. Check out part 2 of of her series here where she digs deeper into cultivating a creative practice for dealing with pain. 


Updated on: 04/17/20