Why This Woman Created a Community for People With Chronic Illnesses
Plus, what she wishes people knew about life with conditions like hers.
Sundays are a day to recharge and reset by hanging with friends, turning off your phone, bathing for hours on end, or doing whatever else works for you. In this column (in conjunction with our Instagram Self-Care Sunday series), we ask editors, experts, influencers, writers, and more what a perfect self-care Sunday means to them, from tending to their mental and physical health to connecting with their community to indulging in personal joys. We want to know why Sundays are important and how people enjoy them, from morning to night.
Nitika Chopra, the Chief Executive Officer of Chronicon, a community platform for people with chronic illnesses, has been working in the wellness industry for over 11 years. Her career lifted off when she began an online magazine focusing on self-love, beauty, and wellness, but it wasn't until around 2018 when she realized she wanted to shift directions to focus on helping people with chronic illnesses and disabilities like herself; Chopra was diagnosed with psoriasis at 10 and psoriasis arthritis at 19. Although she has been living with these conditions for 30 years, she had never made her chronic illnesses a focal point in her work, but eventually she felt the need to speak up.
"In 2018, I started to put a bunch of those puzzle pieces together and realized that there’s nothing that I know more about than what it’s like to live with a chronic illness," the 39-year-old tells HelloGiggles. "And there’s so much isolation involved with people who are living with chronic conditions that if I can take the skills that I have as a host and a content creator and actually help those people, that would be a dream come true."
In 2019, Chopra did just that by creating Chronicon, "a platform that is dedicated to elevating the lives for those who live with a chronic illness," as she explains. This year, the company hosted a sold-out conference with speakers who also have chronic conditions, with thousands of people watching on live stream. But when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Chopra pivoted to create the Chronicon Community, a monthly membership online community for those who have chronic illnesses to connect virtually through monthly events, chat with fellow members, and gain exclusive invites to community gatherings.
"I think deep down, I know I probably wouldn’t have done that yet if I had gotten the chance to just do another event, because events have been things I’ve been doing for a really long time and knew a lot about. But the community online is something new for me," Chopra says.
Even though Chronicon is a new venture, Chopra is using her skills from her online magazine days to help a "community that isn’t focused on or really talked to enough," she says. "There aren’t a lot of people talking about chronic illness in a way that we thrive while living with a chronic illness and what’s available to us. There’s no one marketing to us. And that’s something that I see as a huge issue in the media and in the market."
For this week’s Self-Care Sunday, we spoke to Chopra to learn more about her health journey, her go-to self-care rituals, and what she wished people understood about chronic illness.
HelloGiggles (HG): How has having two autoimmune conditions impacted your relationship with mental health?
Nitika Chopra (NC): When I got diagnosed with psoriasis, I was 10 years old... it wasn’t actually until I was almost 30 that I even knew what mental health was. I’m an Indian woman, and in the Indian culture, we’re not taught to go to therapy and to do these things that are for our mental health.
My parents were immigrants, and I’m first-generation, and that to them, was often considered a luxury. My parents’ generation is dealing with survival; it’s not dealing with “how to thrive.” That’s not something I was taught at all. So I think it affected my mental health, even though I didn’t know that that’s what was happening, and I think that's why I started my career talking about self-love so much. It caused self-doubt, low self-esteem, and even a lot of self-hatred, as harsh as it is to say, because my body was covered in psoriasis; it was like 98% of my body for like 17 years of my life. So being in that all the time and having that at such a young age didn’t set me up for success, to feel like I’m this magnificent being.
Now people look at me and think that I’m just happy all the time or that comes naturally to me, and no, I have to fight for that every day, to feel joy and to feel okay. Joy is even a high bar a lot of the time. But also, on the other hand, [having chronic illnesses] has also made me such a sensitive and compassionate person in a way that I think has really helped me. My relationships are a lot more meaningful, and I care a lot about intimacy and true connection. Like, I want to know what’s really going on with people in a deeper way, because I’m not so afraid to face those difficult types of emotions that often times, we are trained and taught to avoid, especially here in America. Our whole society is taught about numbing and avoidance. So it’s been positive in that it has helped me build myself up but at the same time, it definitely was really hard.
HG: What are some practices or regimens you suggest people with chronic illnesses do for their mental health this winter, especially if they feel isolated?
NC: What has helped me is having an emotional toolkit. You know, what are the three to five things I can pull on the days that are really devastating, which does happen? When you wake up in the morning and you’re expecting to have a great day, but you have a flair up, and you feel totally knocked down, it can be emotionally very devastating. So with the emotional toolkit, I have a few friends I know I can call. And it’s not a ton of friends; it’s specific friends who you know are going to get it and want to support you in a way that you want support, and not in that they have their own agenda with trying to fix you or give you unsolicited advice. These friends are emotionally capable to support you in those really dark moments. So it’s about being really particular about the people who you are trying to connect with.
Also, one of the things I did a lot in my 20s—because I couldn’t walk without severe pain for six years because of my psoriatic arthritis—was that I would watch a lot of funny videos on YouTube, and it would make me so happy. And I would increase my levity and my joy. And it was so fun and it was free and it’s just on your phone. You don’t need to get out of bed, so if you’re immobile in some way or it hurts for you to move, you can just do that from your phone. And I know a lot of people can do this all the time, but I think there’s something powerful about choosing that in those really dark moments and saying, “Okay, I see you, darkness. We’re just going to try to see if you can chill out just for a little bit. I’m going to choose something different right now.” The act of choosing something different is really powerful.
Also, I’m a very spiritual person. I think it's really important if you can find a practice that helps you find the center of who you are. And it’s not because it will solve everything, but it’s really because most of the time, we’re feeling too many things and we can’t even really process what we’re feeling because there is so much going on and we’re not taking the time to just be with it. So whether it’s journaling or, you know, I used to talk to God on my phone, or you can pull tarot cards—you figure out what makes sense for you. Because when things are really hard and overwhelming, the tendency is just wanting to push past it and that’s just not going to get us anywhere.
HG: What physical activities have you been doing lately to help you connect with your mind and body?
NC: I just go for a walk, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. Sometimes I’ll push myself because I’m so used to being in our apartment all the time, but I’ll say, “Okay, I’m going to listen to that podcast during this time" or I’ll plan to call a friend to hold myself accountable.
I also started using a standing desk. And when I do the Chronicon events, I know they’re going to be an hour long, so I just stand while I’m doing them just to keep my body moving and alive, so I don’t just melt into the couch.
HG: What do you wish people understood and acknowledged about the chronic illness community as a whole, and how do you suggest others show up and give support?
NC: There’s this tendency with chronic illnesses or even disabilities where you get diagnosed with something, and all of a sudden, you are separated; you are someone who is sick now. And whether someone says that to you or not, that is the way our systems have been set up to be for a very long time. It’s inherent in how we operate. And sometimes there’s this assumption that that is all we are. And I think that is the thing—with the work I’m doing with Chronicon—is helping people see that yeah, that’s one part of who I am. And yes, this has defined a lot of things about my life. It defines what I can eat and it defines how much energy I have, but it does not define me as a whole.
The National Health Council says that there are 133 million Americans who have a chronic illness, so that’s almost half the population. And that’s what gets me so fired up, like, why are you talking about us like we’re these random few people? I think that’s what made me so fired up to want to start the company. Because, you know, even I have felt so alone, but then I would think, “Well, maybe it’s because there’s only three of us?” And then I saw that number, and I was like, “You have to be freaking kidding me!” This is not okay. There are so many of us, and people treat us like we’re this rare group and it’s just not true and that has just been a disservice.
HG: Are there any products that you’ve been gravitating towards lately to help with your chronic illnesses?
NC: I have been influenced by Jessica Alba and I bought the freaking Vanity Planet facial steamer she featured on her Instagram. It’s revolutionary. I have gotten so many people to buy this steamer. I’m obsessed! My mom saw me a month after using the steamer and she said, “Nikia, what have you done to your face?” She was shocked! I don’t know what they do to this steamer, but I’m about to turn 40 and I swear it really takes the edge off. It’s just my happy place. I do it about once a week. But it kind of makes me feel a little more luxurious. I used to get facials and I loved going to the spa and I always felt like that was my "me time," so I’ve just really enjoyed doing the steamer and doing the face masks at home. I’ll probably do that Sunday night. And I feel like if I ever meet Jessica Alba, I’m just going to be like, “Girl, thank you. I bought this steamer because you had it and I felt like we were friends, and I just had to get it.” I’ve been influenced and it’s been real.
I’ve also been finding comfy clothes that still make me feel cute. I recently discovered Beyond Yoga. And again, I saw a friend post about it over and over again. So I tried their Black Friday sale just to see if I like their stuff, and their leggings are like butter. And they make me feel good. They’re fitted and nice and just so soft.
Oh, you know what else? There are these two Indian sisters [Shaz and Kiku] who started this brand called Shaz and Kiks. They started with a hero product and it’s a scalp hair pre-wash. And I have really thick hair, and I’m not really into hair treatments because it can weigh your hair down, but this product is ah-mazing! I love it so much that I miss when my hair does not have it on. It really moisturizes your scalp and it has this cooling and tingling feeling to it that just feels moisturizing and nourishing and soothing. And it doesn’t make your hair oily and you just use it as a conditioner. It’s transformative.
HG: What are some ways you’ve been connecting with your personal joy?
NC: On mornings when I wake up and think, “What is life? I’m stuck in this apartment and life is so weird,” I go to the Chronicon community. Honestly, it’s been the most rewarding thing because I feel like people are feeling seen in a way that I was hoping they may feel, but I had no idea that that would actually be the case.
We share so much content on there and we have events every week. And you can’t force people to make those connections. You just have to create the container and pray. It’s just been so rewarding. I feel like I can have the hardest day, and then I’ll get a little ping that something is happening with the community and I’ll be like, “Oh my god, this is amazing! This makes me so happy. This is why I was born!” I feel like this makes up for all the years I was dealing with my health on such an extreme level if it’s going to lead me to actually help people in this way.