practicing self care with chronic illness

Practicing self care with chronic illness

What is self care?

The WHO 1998 definition is:

‘Self-Care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.) socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.) and self-medication.

Self care is an important component of all around wellness when you have a chronic illness. Many of us do what we need to get through each and every day just so we can survive. It’s often difficult to prioritize ourselves and our health when there are so many other demands on our time and on our bodies. If you have a spouse, children, or other family members in your household your needs usually get sent to the bottom of the list, which can further damage your health. However, you can’t help anyone else if you can’t help yourself.

It’s easy to say, prioritize yourself so that you can improve your health, but how do we do it? What is self care and what is it comprised of?

  1. Recognizing and monitoring the boundaries

Setting boundaries is an integral part of living with a chronic illness and practicing self care. You will never be able to prioritize yourself if you don’t set clear boundaries. Make it clear to your friends and family what you can and can’t do, and then don’t cave if you get pressured to break those boundaries.

This is the hardest one for me because I am at heart a people pleaser and don’t like to say no. It took me years to learn this lesson, and only because I over committed myself too many times and it took a significant toll on my health. Now my rule is that if I don’t think I can do something I polity say no, without explanation. Because it’s not my job to justify my actions. I should have as much compassion for myself as I do others.

2. Changing the view of yourself

Having a chronic illness generally comes with a lot of feelings of inadequacy, which effects our ability to prioritize self care. One day you’re a healthy functioning member of the society, and then a short time later you’re not. Suddenly you can’t do everything you used to do. You may have had to quit your job, you’ve dropped your social life, you can barely cook for yourself much less maintain anything else in your household. Your friends are making great achievements while your greatest achievement is taking a shower. Suddenly you feel worthless. In order to survive you have to change how you view yourself. You can’t base your self worth on your career or your athletic prowess. You need to find a way to value yourself for the person you are instead of valuing the things you do.

value yourself for who you are, not what you do

3. Self Medication- or connecting with yourself

When you have a chronic illness you are sometimes good at taking care of yourself on the outside by going to the right doctors, taking the right medicines, and eating the right things. It’s harder however to take care of yourself on the inside. You convince yourself your fine with your illness while wondering if there’s any point to living like this long term. You tell people you are valuable, while wondering if anything you do will ever be good enough. You say you don’t feel guilty about all the things you fail at, but inside you are constantly stressed about all the things you should be doing better. You hide the pain and pretend it’s not there, but all the while it eats at you.

Try to connect with yourself instead of hiding your feelings. Look at different ways to take care of your mind. My new favorite way to practice self care is adult coloring books. It sounds a little nutty, but it does have therapeutic value. Or look at this Self Care Starter Kit for other ideas.

4. Pacing, planning and prioritizing

When you have a chronic illness all too often you wake up one morning feeling good and you decided to catch up on all the things you’ve fallen behind on. This in results in burn out which means that your next few days are going to be bad days, which means you’ll fall behind again. This cycle is damaging to both body and mind, and could more often be avoided with a little practice of self care.

Pacing involves setting reasonable goals for yourself and not heavily basing your activity on your pain level. Find your baseline for each activity and stick to it. If you can only walk for five minutes before you hit your threshold, only do it for five minutes. Honor your body. Don’t push through activities just to please other people.* Prioritize yourself and your health.

*In the interest of honesty, I will add that I am THE WORST at doing this.

There are many other components of self care that are not within the scope of this article. What’s important is that people with chronic illness need to prioritize self care, regular routine maintenance is often not enough. Self care might even look different to you than it does to other people, what’s important is that you find what makes you feel better.

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