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15 Activities to Keep You Entertained When Chronic Illness Has You Stuck in Bed

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This is for the young adults who are stuck in bed due to illness or injury. Recently, I’ve been confined to a bed most days due to my health. I get restless and eager to do things, clean, shower and get out of the house. But my reality right now is that I need help just picking up a dropped item, and it’s OK to be where I am right now. And it’s also OK if you are also bed bound. It doesn’t imply weakness or laziness, as much as our culture tries to convince us we aren’t “being productive enough.”

There is hope to come out of this journey stronger. I’ve been struggling with chronic illness for 10 years, and it has come to a head. I am in a hospital to treat the medical complications that accompany severe anorexia. Before I was admitted, I spent almost all of my time in bed, resting, sleeping, watching TV, scrolling through Instagram and Facebook and snuggling with my dog. I had no energy for anything else and I felt pathetic, like a waste of a human.

I felt like I was doing life wrong. I wasn’t getting up before noon, I couldn’t hold down a job, I couldn’t finish school, I could barely socialize. Even walking up the stairs took five minutes, because I had to stop at every step to bend over and rest while my heart rate spiked. But as Lao Tzu said, “Every journey begins with a single step,” and I believe this to my core.

On Monday I took a first step to fly across the country from Maine to Colorado, to be admitted to the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders. My health was severely compromised and this program is the only kind in the country that treats the medical complications of eating disorders.

Dr. Philip Mehler — a world-famous eating disorder researcher, author and doctor who speaks all over the world — started the program 30 years ago. It has helped many patients gain recovery and live healthy lives, and go on to do amazing things: starting families, teaching, getting degrees, becoming therapists, nurses, nurses, dietitians, doctors, surgeons, pilots, members of the military, writers, artists and so much more. However, I know firsthand that these jobs or life titles can feel so far in the future, or so unattainable when you are dealing with chronic illness, and especially when you are bed bound.

Here are some activities I like to do when I am stuck in bed to pass the time. They give me a little sense of productivity while I do what I need to do to help my body regain strength. I compiled a list here and would love to hear your ideas for other activities to do from a bed. Different things will work for different people, so try as many as you can before you give up!

Here are my favorite activities to do when stuck in bed:

1. Crocheting and knitting hats and scarves for friends, family, babies in the hospital and cancer patients. It’s always nice to feel warm and comforted when going through health struggles, and it feels good to give back to others. Crocheting little animals can be super fun too if you have the energy to follow a pattern.

2. Coloring — it’s soothing to the mind and has meditative qualities.

3. Journaling — I journal every day, not about anything in particular, but I write three pages daily without picking up my pen, to get into my subconscious and bring to the surface repressed or suppressed memories, beliefs and sticking points.

4. Collaging — old magazines are great for making collages. I make vision boards for where I want to be in the future. I also make memory collages to express the hurt of living with chronic pain and illnesses.

5. Watching a good TV show! There is no shame in finding a good show and binge-watching it. Obviously, binge-watching TV all the time doesn’t always feel productive, but when you’re stuck in bed and need the rest, it can be a nice treat and good escape from pain.

6. Writing prose or poetry is one of my favorite activities to engage in when I’m in bed. Whether or not my writing is published, it’s still a relief to have an outlet for ideas and strong emotions.

7. Stretching and physical therapy exercises can feel supportive if your body is in a place where it can do some gentle stretches to loosen tight muscles. At least for me, I get really sore when I am bed bound, so stretching feels really good.

8. Reading! Sometimes I hate reading, because it feels like books go by so slowly, but when I find a book that I love, I read the whole thing in one day. Some of my favorites are “Kissing Doorknobs” for people living with OCD, “The Power of Imperfection” by Brene Brown, “Hyperbole and a Half” for people struggling with anxiety and depression, and “You are a Badass” for motivation. There are so many good books out there; these are just my favorites.

9. Writing friends and family cards can be a gratitude practice. When I am bed bound, I write a lot of cards to the people I love and express my gratitude for their existence in my life. Surprisingly, it lifts my mood a lot.

10. Speaking of gratitude, gratitude lists can elicit peace and open your heart to receive love from others. Writing a gratitude list daily actually changes neural pathways in the brain.

11. Painting your nails. I prefer sparkles! Or having someone close to you help you paint your nails can be soothing.

12. Getting a back rub or shoulder massage can release tension and make you feel a lot calmer than before.

13. Painting is one of my favorite hobbies. I love getting large canvases and painting with acrylic paints, so if I spill on my bed it doesn’t ruin the blankets. Water color paints are even less messy, and it’s soothing to watch the colors flow together.

14. I love juggling — now this takes a lot of focus and a lot of energy, so it’s one of those exercises better for when you are out of bed, but still housebound. Juggling crosses the midline of your body and helps your brain process information more fully in both the left and right hemispheres. Even tossing a ball from one hand to the next gets the same kind of effect.

15. And finally, listening to music. It can be so soothing to put on some favorite tunes and take a nap, or just lay in bed with your eyes closed listening to each word, the notes, the melody. Music elicits lots of emotions so if one song doesn’t do it for you, go to the next. Music heals.

These are just some of my favorite bed bound activities, which help me feel productive, even when I don’t leave my room. It’s hard to keep going sometimes when it feels like nothing is getting better, but just remember, every butterfly had to undergo an incredible amount of pressure and change to become the beautiful creature it is meant to be. And so can you. I’m here with you in the struggle — you’re not alone.

Photo courtesy of the author, wearing a homemade, crocheted hat made from bed

Originally published: April 14, 2023
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