Jennifer Mulder is a Dutch psychologist with a long history of juvenile rheumatism, fibromyalgia, and ME/CFS. On The Health Sessions, she gives in-depth advice on living a good life with chronic illness and how to create your own action plan for recovery. Follow The Health Sessions on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest for more tried-and-tested tips.
Q: How did you first get interested in blogging about pain? (1)
A: As a teenage girl, I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatism, fibromyalgia, and ME/CFS. For around 15 years, I struggled with inflamed joints, chronic pain, muscle weakness, fatigue, and brain fog every day. I spent a lot of time at home, unable to go to school, hang out with friends or have a regular job.
At first, I tried everything I could to get better - several doctors, physical therapy and massages, diets and supplements - but nothing really worked for long. So after a few years, my focus shifted to how I could still live a good life despite chronic illness. I wanted to know how I could study Psychology from home while in pain, learn about energy hacks, and how to get everyday things done with chronic illness. But in the late 90’s and early 2000s, there was little information available on those topics. That’s how the idea grew in my mind to start blogging and share actionable tips about living with chronic illness.
And thankfully, nowadays, I no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for either of these diseases. There are still things I cannot do and I still carefully manage my health, but I’ve reached my own definition of recovery.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about The Health Sessions Blog you run?
A: The Health Sessions wants to help chronically ill people lead a more enjoyable and meaningful life despite their health problems. On the website, you’ll find science-based advice on how to gradually get closer to your own definition of recovery, as well as cope better with the emotional, cognitive, and practical problems that remain.
There are countless health and fitness blogs online, but most overlook that first phase of getting from housebound to functioning ‘normally’. They also don’t take into account all the extra obstacles people with chronic illness have to overcome, like constant pain, limited mobility, and other debilitating symptoms. By combining my professional knowledge as a psychologist with tried-and-tested tips from being a patient, I hope to provide actionable tips for all energy levels.
Q: What are some of the barriers to treating pain you’ve encountered yourself or have learned about through your blog subscribers?
A: I think the first barrier to treating chronic pain is being taken seriously by doctors and getting the right diagnosis. There are still so many stories about people with persisting vague symptoms (like diffuse pain, tiredness, headaches, feeling ill) who feel dismissed by the medical world. Or women with extreme menstrual pain who are told - in polite perms - to basically suck it up. Thankfully, I have not experienced real medical gaslighting myself, but I do know what it feels like to have to ‘prove’ that you’re not just overreacting.
Another barrier to treating chronic pain that’s often overlooked is how difficult that same pain makes it to successfully follow lifestyle interventions. For example, we know that gradual (guided) exercising can be helpful to prevent and manage chronic pain. But when chronic pain makes you tired, dizzy, and less mobile, you may struggle to get to the gym or physical therapy in the first place. You probably need to rest afterwards or experience increased pain or post-exertional malaise the next day, which isn’t always an option when you can barely juggle work, kids and/or daily chores. Planning how you can overcome these obstacles before you start making healthy lifestyle changes will increase your likelihood of sticking to your new healthy habits - and thus managing your pain better.
Q: In what ways are you optimistic and hopeful about overcoming these barriers and the future of pain care?
A: Personally, I’m happy to say I no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for juvenile rheumatism, fibromyalgia and ME/CFS. But being ill for over 15 years has certainly left its marks on my body and daily functioning. I still have to carefully manage my energy and experience the occasional flare-up of symptoms, but nowadays I feel confident I have the knowledge, practical tools, inner cal,,,m and resilience to deal with these issues.
As for the future of pain care, the new generation of medical professionals (at least here in the Netherlands) seems to have a greater focus on good doctor-patient communication and on combining pain medication with proven lifestyle programs. I believe looking at both the whole person and the underlying cause of chronic pain, instead of simply prescribing painkillers for years on end, would make a big difference to chronic pain sufferers and society.
Q: What are you working on now that most excites you?
A: To be honest, I’m in the middle of planning new content. I’d like to provide more highly accessible, everyday things you can do to support your health and happiness, like catching sunlight in the morning and upgrading your bath rituals, but whether that’ll turn into a physical book, video series, or audiobook is yet to be determined :-).
Q: What do you like to do for fun when you aren’t trying to empower and help people in pain?
A: After being mostly stuck at home for so many years, I really enjoy days out with my family now! From going to the zoo to a nature walk or visiting a museum, it makes me so happy to be able to explore the world again. But I also love ‘homely things’ like reading books, watching series, cooking, and crafting with my kids.