Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle as a Chronically Ill College Student
Walking around Target the other day, I noticed so many "Back to College' essentials for sale. Mirrors, bath caddies, microwaves, etc. It totally brought me back to a time not so long ago when I went shopping with my mother, preparing for my first year living in a college dorm.
I remember how excited I was to be living on my own and having a lot more freedom. But having juvenile-onset psoriatic arthritis, I had to be more responsible about my choices than most of my classmates. I wasn't able to power through all-nighters during the week and party on the weekends.
Tips for managing college with psoriatic arthritis
Making poor choices affected my health, which affected my grades and overall quality of life. It was tough sometimes, especially during mid-terms and finals. But you can still have a fun, productive time at college while making good choices. Just keep some of these tips for a healthy college lifestyle in mind.
A psoriatic diet
When you think of a typical college diet, I'm sure ramen noodles, Cheetos, and mountain dew all come to mind. But having a poor diet can make pain and inflammation worse. Unfortunately, it can be hard to cook healthy meals between a tight budget and time constraints between classes, studying, internships, and other commitments. Plus, cooking is the last thing you want to do after coming home with aching joints from a long day.
My advice is that the microwave can be your best friend when you don't have the energy to prepare a meal or wash pots and pans. It can also be used to cook some brands of rice, steam frozen veggies, and even make omelets (in a mug). Instant foods get a bad rep, but if you're smart about looking at the labels, you can find healthy options.
For example, if you want oatmeal, buy the unflavored option and save yourself a ton of extra sugar and add in your maple sugar, honey, or berries. Also, carry a refillable water bottle around with you! There will always be places to refill it, and being dehydrated can make your pain and fatigue even worse.
The importance of exercise
It can be tempting to skip the gym, especially during busy periods and finals. But exercise can help you manage your PsA symptoms. Try to get in as much exercise as you can, even if you have to squeeze it in during the day.
A lot of people I knew commuted by riding their bikes or taking the stairs. When I was in college, I rarely went to the gym. But I did a ton of walking because I knew it was an excellent exercise, plus it saved me money on bus fare.
Some semesters, I walked a few miles a day between going to classes, walking to my work-study job, and then going to clubs in the evening. I built up a lot of stamina and felt pretty good most semesters. But I found going for walks helpful even during semesters when I was in constant flares.
Paying attention to triggers
Many people consider going to parties and going to bars to be a fun part of your college years. But remember, alcohol can cause psoriatic arthritis to flare for some people. Even if you're one of the lucky ones who isn't affected, you may be using a medication that requires you to limit your alcohol intake.
That doesn't mean you should abstain completely. I'd be lying if I said I never have a drink from time to time. But having a drink once in a while made it so much more enjoyable.
The times I did decide to drink were typically special occasions where I was okay paying for the pain the next day. One year after going to see a concert for my birthday, my boyfriend and I sat at the bar of my favorite Mexican restaurant with cocktails and churros. It's hands down one of my favorite memories and was 100% worth it.
Care for your bones
One of the hardest parts of being a young adult with psoriatic arthritis is that others don't get that you're sick. Others assume that you have a ton of energy and no limits just because you're young. But that's not true. People with PsA need to get regular, good quality rest. Sometimes, that means having more time to rest than others, especially during a flare.
Don't let high expectations burn you out. Take it from me, it is rough recovering from weeks of sleepless nights and running around. One semester, I even landed myself in the ER from exhaustion from overdoing it.
Learn to say 'no' sometimes, and try not to take on more than you think you can handle. Sometimes, it means missing out on something fun like hanging out with friends because you need a restful night. It can also mean possibly taking fewer classes at a time, not taking internships and courses at the same time, and other ways to allow for time to ensure you can care for yourself.
Don't get discouraged!
It's hard to be a young adult with a chronic illness. Having to prioritize your health more than your peers can be frustrating at times. I remember feeling discouraged when I struggled to keep up with my friends.
No, my time at college wasn't particularly wild or crazy. At times, it was very quiet and even a little lonely. But, putting my health first always improved my quality of life and helped me enjoy the experiences I did have. I still look back fondly at my time as a student and don't regret my choices one bit. The only thing I would've changed is knowing this advice much earlier in my college career!
Do you have a sleep disorder (eg. insomnia, sleep apnea, RLS) in addition to your PsA?