Back to School with a Chronic Illness
September is here, and for many people this means it's back-to-school time! This time of year can be bittersweet for those with chronic illness. Many of us have had to withdrawal from school at one point or another because our illness made it impossible. If you've had to do this at any point and time, but are choosing to return back to school now, you might be facing some reluctance. You might fear you will have to withdrawal again, you may doubt your ability to attend school after time away, or you might not feel ready. Whatever your situation may be, it's okay. Your feelings are valid. I, too, had to take off time from school which brought about a lot of grief and frustration. Returning to school, and learning how to do everything I once did in a new way, was a tedious process. However, I finally got in the groove of things and wanted to share with you what has helped me do this.
In January 2018 I wrote a blog post titled "Tips for Navigating University/College with POTS" which I highly recommend refreshing your memory on if you're going back to school this Fall. Another useful blog post I've written is "Goal Setting with a Chronic Illness" which can help you stay motivated.
The majority of the tips I recommend for navigating college/university with POTS can be found in the first blog post mentioned above. However, since I wrote that blog post I have learned a few more tips I wish I knew when I first went back to school with POTS. In the first blog post "Tips for Navigating Uniersity/College with POTS" I share 20 tips, and today I am going to add to those.
What I wish I knew when I went back to school with POTS: (Continued from the first 20 tips I shared at "Tips for Navigating University/College with POTS")
21. Figure out what time of day you're least symptomatic and maximize those hours. For me, it's late afternoon and evenings. Unfortunately that's when the rest of the world is free to be social; and I, being an extrovert, often fall into the temptation of hanging out with friends a couple evenings before an exam instead of studying. I then have to compensate in the morning/afternoon where I'll find myself taking twice as much energy and time to complete the same amount of studying.
22. Minimize distractions. Brain fog sometimes makes studying feel unbearable so I'll often try to alleviate that feeling with anything else. I'll find myself checking my phone more times during studying than I do on a regular basis. Unfortunately, in doing so, I add to the cycle of brain fog. I've minimized this distraction by doing two things. First, I have my phone on 'do not disturb" mode 24/7. In other words, my phone doesn't make any noise unless it's a phone call or an alarm going off. Texts can wait, phone calls are usually more important. The book "The Brain Fog Fix" really inspired me to make this decision.
Second, I use an app called "Forest" on my phone. I don't usually buy apps, but my friend with an Android (who got it for free at the time, but it isn't free on iphones) swore by this app so I decided to give it a try. It prevents you from looking at your phone for the agreed-upon time (I set it for 25 minutes). Technically you can close the app and use your phone but then it won't plant a digital tree. If you don't look at your phone during that time, it'll plant a digital tree. Then, after you've planted a certain amount of digital trees, the app plants real trees through the organization "Trees for the Future." As an environmentalist, I know I won't close my app and prevent the world from gaining a tree, just because I can't wait 25 minutes to mindlessly check my phone. If this specific app doesn't peek your interest, there are many similar ones out there that I'd recommend looking into.
I also sometimes use this reflexology ring from Saje to fidget with. Don't ever use this ring just to wear throughout the day, as it will cut off your circulation that way. Instead, roll it up and down your finger when studying, or in class, when you need something to distract you from your symptoms and keep your mind focused on what you're learning.
23. Diffuse an essential oil that helps with concentration (as long as your illness doesn't prevent the use of essential oils). In my previous blog post, I shared how I use this essential oil necklace with Peppermint oil during exams, and when studying, to help me concentrate. Another tip I've since discovered is diffusing Motivate essential oil by DoTerra* in a diffuser. This stuff is really potent so DILUTE a ton! Even more than usual. It warned against skin sensitivities on the bottle, so I diluted a ton and applied it to my temples but that was too much for me so I've since diffused a small amount in a diffuser when studying and find that this works a lot. *make sure to always do your research before trying a new oil. Some oils can trigger seizures in those with epilepsy.
24. If you're struggling with a lack of accommodations, or would just like to learn more about navigating school with POTS, purchase the book "POTS Together We Stand." My mom bought me this book when I first got sick with POTS and it's been incredibly helpful. It has multiple chapters on navigating high-school and post-secondary with POTS. It goes into detail about your rights, what colleges are known for being accommodating, letters to send your teachers, and what to pack if you're moving on campus. This book is filled to the brim with useful, practical knowledge.
25. Get at the root of your procrastination early on. When I was first adjusting to university after becoming sick, I got in a really bad habit of procrastinating. I never used to procrastinate, so I didn't know how to address it. I then came across many articles that talked about procrastination being a type of fear. At first, I didn't buy it. I was procrastinating because when I felt well enough to study, studying was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to hang out with friends, or just enjoy life, not buckle down and study. I would then find myself needing to study last-minute, with little sleep, and very symptomatic because I procrastinated my studies until this point. Doing this was bad for my grades, physical, and mental health. I needed to change. So I decided to explore more articles about procrastination and do some deep reflection. I eventually came to the realization that fear definitely played a big role in my tendency to procrastinate. I have a vision board I created at my desk in front of me, and in the middle of it is a quote saying,
"If you feel like procrastinating on something, tell yourself you will do 5 minutes of the task. You will find yourself wanting to do more, because you've overcome what is called procrastination anxiety" (source unknown).
Many CEO's and successful well-known leaders have come out saying the exact same thing. This is a habit I started to integrate in my studies, and all areas of my life, in the last year, and it's proven to be really successful. When I really, really don't want to work on something, I'll even go as far as to set a timer on my phone for 5 minutes which gives me an out (okay, I'll do 5 minutes, and as soon as that alarm rings, I'm outta here!). To this day, I haven't once stopped after only 5 minutes, I just needed motivation to start.
26. Make one goal a day. One, small, doable goal for your studies is almost always possible.
27. Schedule time to study in your planner. The same way you'd write down a doctor's appointment, write down an appointment with yourself to study, and treat it like any other appointment: show up on time, be present, and make the most of it.
28. If you struggle with forgetfulness, post your schedule all over the place. The year before i developed POTS, I didn't show up to a couple classes just because I forgot. I was an organized, type A personality, with a love for school so this didn't make sense to me. I ended up slowly losing my memory before developing POTS. After I forgot a couple classes, I ended up posting my school calendar on my fridge and front door. Buying a white board or cute chalkboard to put up on your wall is also a great place to put this. I also use Canva.com (or the Canva app) to make a lock screen for my phone that shows my academic schedule. Here are two examples of ones I made in the past (make sure to leave room for the time and date your phone displays when locked:
29. Remember why you started. Make a vision board, post motivational quotes around you. Remember that you're investing in your education to create a better life for yourself.
30. Know when to take a break. Know when you need to ask for help, and know when you need to take a step back from school. Doing so isn't a failure. It's a trial-and-error process to learn what your body can handle and what it can't. If you need to take a step back, you've just learned more about your body's current limitations. There's no shame in taking one course a semester, the time will pass anyway. You might as well allow it to pass by prioritizing your health and making the most of your life instead of stressing yourself to a breaking point.
I hope you found these tips helpful. Leave a comment below and share what has helped you navigate school with chronic illness.
I hope you have a great semester!