“Self – Care”. We hear this term all over social media, from influencers going through their daily “self – love” routines, to articles promoting different forms of self - care. It is certainly the buzz word of the last few years.
The stories and videos of “Self – care” online invoke images of massages and spa days, shopping trips to fancy boutiques, sipping vibrant veggie juices in trendy yoga outfits and snugging up with a blanket and a book in front of the fireplace.
But when your energy and physical health is limited, self-care becomes a lot less glamorous than the “perfect” picture painted online. Chronic Health Conditions can turn even the most basic forms of self-care, like taking a shower and cooking a meal, into a challenge.
At the same time, our health care systems put a growing emphasis on individuals taking control over their own health and actively managing their illness. We’re expected to eat healthily, exercise, get enough sleep and think positively, or seek professional help whenever we can’t. Of course that’s a good thing. It’s your body to take care of, and ultimately you’re the one who has to take action to make the most of whatever situation you’re given. But how can you do that when you feel sick, exhausted and in pain?
Let’s look into what it really means to practice self-care when living with a Chronic Health Condition.
What Self-Care Means When You have a Chronic Health Condition
Self-care can be described as all the actions you take to look after your physical, mental, emotional and social needs. It’s much more than having a bubble bath after a long day, or having that ice coffee at the weekend. Self-care also refers to an overall sense of wellbeing, leading a healthy lifestyle, managing chronic conditions and preventing further illness or injury.
There are 3 types of self-care:
Basic Self-Care. These are the small acts you have to do every day to tend to your basic needs: eat, drink, sleep and take care of your personal hygiene such as showering or brushing your teeth. These may sound simple, but when you’re struggling with Chronic illness, keeping yourself and your home relatively clean can be a full-time job in itself. Basic self – care activities may take a great deal of energy when you’re not feeling your best, or you are in a flare.
Specific Health Practices. This type of self-care includes all the things you do to manage your health or health condition, from taking your medication and vitamins to engaging with psychological therapy, joining an exercise programme, managing your work life, or avoiding excess stressors. The particular practices are different for everybody, depending on your illness and personal situation.
Indulgent Self-Care – this is the kind that’s been talked about in the media. Self – care should not be seen as a luxury, as it is so painted in the media. Doing things you enjoy is vital for a happy and healthy life. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Sometimes life may call to spoilt ourselves a little with splurge on a holiday or getting a manicure, but remembering that these things can only done after you’ve taken care of your basic needs and health practices first.
Where self – care can become difficult for people living with a Chronic Health Condition like Crohn’s or Colitis is through carrying out basic self – care activities - but feeling under pressure to do more indulgent self – care, through media and online/social pressure.
The irony is: the moment we need self-care the most is when it’s the hardest time to do it. When you’re healthy, it’s difficult to imagine that getting ready for the day – a quick shower, getting dressed, having breakfast – could take up so much of your energy that there’s little left to do anything else. This is totally different when you are in a flare or unwell with your condition, life’s basic tasks can feel almost impossible. You know you need to practice good self-care to support your healing process and keep up your emotional health, but that’s easier said than done when you can barely make it out of bed.
So how can you balance managing your Health Condition with
Living your Best Life?
1. Determine Your Bare Minimum
Doing a Yoga Practice or heading to the gym when you get out of bed followed by a green smoothie bowl for breakfast makes a great daily routine. But if you’re in a flare, that might be too ambitious. So let start by covering your basic needs first.
Choose what needs to be done every day for you to feel ok, write it down and make a list based on priorities. That could mean taking a shower and putting on clean clothes, taking your medication, or phoning a friend. Or perhaps for you it could be going outside to sit in fresh air, meditating for 5 minutes or simply brushing your teeth.
So make a mental checklist of the basic things you’d like to accomplish most days. Listen to your body, if it is a day where you are feeling terribly physically and can only check off one thing (or even HALF a thing!) on the list that is OK too.
2. Develop Routines
Doing activities on autopilot is one of the easiest ways to save energy. You probably make coffee, brush your teeth and drive the same route to work each day without putting much thought or effort to it. Not only does building routines for getting ready in the morning, doing chores around the house or taking your meds make it easier to stick to your habits, but it also frees up energy for more enjoyable activities. Develop routines around your basic self – care firstly, perhaps adding in more specific health practices and even indulgent self – care every now and then. The more we practice behaviours, through reminders and intention setting, the more likely these behaviours will form into habit and routine.
3. Make ‘Boring Self-Care’ More Enjoyable – especially in a Flare
It’s a bitter feeling, always having to spend the little energy you have on doing things you must do instead of on what you’d like to do. This is very common when you are sick, especially if you have been well for awhile and you are experiencing a flare. You may not be able to change anything about your to-do list, but you can change how you tackle it.
Find ways to make “boring” day to day self – care activities like brushing your teeth or doing the dishes feel more enjoyable and less like a chore:
Listen to audiobooks or podcasts while hanging your laundry to dry.
Turn mandatory bed rest into a pajama party – watch a movie, have a facial or paint your nails (if you can).
Combine trips to the doctor or therapy with a short visit to the library or a break at your favourite coffee shop – a little sweet treat after can make a big difference!
Bring a book or magazine with you to the doctor’s office so you can do something you enjoy instead of scrolling your phone while you wait.
4. Come Up With Doable Self – Care Acts
Starting your day with high – energy self – care acts may be great when you are feeling at your best, but what if you’re experiencing a flare? Here are some exercises that you may be able to do when you are not feeling your physical best
Take a deep breath. Inhale through your nose and feel how your belly expands. Let go of all the tension in your body when you exhale through your mouth.
Do one yoga exercise or stretch in bed or sitting on a chair. Even gently moving your muscles can make a big difference.
Sit in the sun, even if it’s by an open window.
Write down 3 things you are thankful for each night. These can be as big or small as you wish. Gratitude has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to boost your happiness.
Buy a new pair of comfy pajamas, slippers, dressing gown or a hot water bottle. Do a little online shopping for times when you’re feeling better.
Set boundaries, it is OK to say “no” to activities when you are feeling unwell. Its difficult when you want to meet with friends or family, but listening to your body and staying in may be just what you need.
Phone of video call a friend for a catch up
Walk to the shop to buy fresh fruit and veggies, this way you can tackle your to-do list whilst working on your health. With one simple activity you’re moving your body, getting fresh air and sunshine and picking up ingredients for a healthy meal.
Which tasks and self-care acts could you combine?
5. Practice Self-Love
Self-care isn’t just about crossing tasks off a checklist; it’s a mindset of treating yourself kindly. Some days that means curling up in bed with Netflix. Other days it means putting on your running shoes, getting out of the house and meeting up with friends for a walk. Know your physical and mental limits and balance this, without staying inside just for the sake of it.
More importantly, self-care is not just about doing things to feel better right now, but also constructively working on your long-term wellbeing. Self – care in it’s essence does not always feel great when we are doing it – think medication, doctor’s visits – but ultimately it is best for our long – term health.
What’s your best tip for practicing self-care when you live with a Chronic Health Condition?
Therapy can be a great space to explore your limits and learn ways to set boundaries, as well as coming up with a self – care routine based on your personal health and condition. I am a trained Health Psychologist, specialising in working with people with Chronic Health Conditions. If you would like to know more, or to book an appointment, please reach out via contact details.
“When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life.” - Jean Shinoda Bolen