The Importance of Self-Care When Living With a Chronic Illness or Disability
Engaging in self-care, regularly, can help you put your best foot forward. When we are regularly taking care of ourselves, we are better able to react to the things that go on in our lives. Self-care is so important for us. It is essintal that we are prioritizing and taking good care of ourselfs, but it becomes even more important when you live with extra challenges that come with living a chronic illness or disability.
What does self-care really mean?
First, let’s clear up one common misconception from the get-go. It is that self-care is self-indulgence or luxury. Unfortunately, many people have this view or misconception that self-care is a luxury, rather than a priority.
The real meaning of self-care is the actions you take to look after your physical, mental, emotional, and social needs. It’s about taking responsibility for your own health, either with help from professionals or of your own accord; essentially doing all you can to help yourself by making good choices and being active in doing things that improve your life and help you to function.
There are many forms self-care can take. For those of us with chronic illness and disabilities, self-care includes all of those doctor's appointments we go to, from PCP checkups to specialists. It includes remembering to take medications and supplements every day as needed to manage our illnesses. Eating healthy and taking care of our bodies. It could be ensuring you get enough sleep every night or stepping outside for a few minutes for some fresh air. Self-care happens when we make time in our busy schedules for things like “me” time or remember to pace ourselves so we don't run out of spoons. Taking time to spend with family and friends or reaching out to support groups and talking to others for support when needed.
Self-care is vital for building resilience toward those stressors in life that you can't eliminate. When you've taken steps to care for your mind, body, and social needs, you'll be better equipped to live your best life. Living with a chronic condition or disability is very challenging and working to take good care of yourself and working to help minimize symptoms introduces a new level to the importance of self-care. Making good choices day to day that can aid you on your journey is very important.
What will having a self-care routine do for you?
Taking responsibility for your own health ensures that you are giving yourself the best chance possible against your symptoms. It also allows you to feel empowered. Often, when you live with a chronic illness or disability, you can feel helpless, but you are far from it! One of the hardest things about learning self-care is learning acceptance and learning to give yourself some grace.
When you put self-care measures into place, you can take control of your own life, and by doing this, you are doing all you can to help yourself. It can help you gain confidence, especially as you see the positive results of your actions in improving your quality of life and the positive impact on your mental health.
Although having a chronic illness or disability brings along many challenges with it, including increased risk for depression and anxiety, you have the potential to make these challenges easier to manage. When you choose to implement a self-care routine effectively, you can isolate symptoms and issues that come up, be better prepared to make changes for optimum management of your disability or chronic illness, and ultimately live your lives to the fullest.
Over time, I learned that managing a chronic illness can be stressful and overwhelming, which can take a toll on you. But, it doesn’t have to. By adding a self-care routine, you can break down each level of your needs and set new goals for yourself, in turn minimizing your stress and helping you meet all your core needs.
At Love Your Life Coaching, I help clients work through all their fears, worries, and stresses related to their chronic illness or disability management by helping them create a self-care plan that supports all their needs and allows them to reach optimum functioning, while also managing their chronic illness or disability effectively.
I will show you some ways, based on each type of self-care need.
Different Types of Self-Care
In order to manage your chronic illness or disability and care for your physical, mental and social health, it is important to find a balance that allows you to address each of these areas. Sometimes you might need more self-care in one specific area in order to restore balance or find relief from a stressor in your life.
You need to take care of your body if you want it to run efficiently. Keep in mind that there's a strong connection between your body and your mind. When you're caring for your body, you'll think and feel better too.
Physical self-care includes how you're fueling your body, how much sleep you're getting, how much physical activity you are doing, and how well you're caring for your physical needs. Attending doctor appointments, eating healthy, getting enough rest, and managing your health are all part of good physical self-care.
The 3 basic categories to look at are:
Nutrition - Providing your body with the nutrients it needs to help it function is even more vital when your body has more symptoms to deal with such as chronic fatigue and chronic pain. Eating the right foods that are going to give you energy helps your brain work in the best way it can, maintain your immune system, and essentially help yourself as much as possible. Are your meals and snacks nutritious? Are you getting the nutrients you need, specific to your illness, or to support the needs of your disability and how it is affecting your body? These are some things you can ask yourself when looking at how to best support yourself through your diet. Vitamins and supplements are other things to look at. Are your medications depleting any nutrients or is your body lacking in certain vitamins? If so, you might need to supplement. Drinking enough water is also very important. Are you drinking the right amount of water for your body? While the 8 – 8oz glass recommendation is a ‘general’ guideline, when you have a chronic illness or disability and take medications, this number can look drastically different. Be sure to check with a dietitian or other professional to make sure you are educated on how much water you should be drinking to help support your body.
Rest - Are you getting enough sleep? Most people should be aiming for 6-8 hours a night, but we know having a chronic illness or disability can mean you need even more. More importantly, what does the quality of your sleep look like? Are you managing your fatigue, as well? Are you making sure you take breaks and are not wearing yourself out? Sometimes, with all of this work on feeling positive and being proactive, it can be hard not to feel guilty when you need to rest. Allowing yourself to take breaks when you feel they are needed and trying not to feel guilty about that fact will allow you to really get the most out of that rest. Remember there's nothing wrong with taking some time for yourself. As a person with a chronic illness, I have learned it's imperative to manage my spoons (Link to Spoon Theory) so I don't over-exhaust my body and cause my symptoms to increase or cause a flare-up of my disease.
Exercise - Exercise can help control symptoms and ease the stress that stems from being sick. Living with a chronic illness or disability can make you want to withdraw from exercise for many reasons, but using gentle exercise on a regular basis is so good for your body, mind, and for your mood. It’s important to keep your body moving in order to keep it healthy. Do you have a daily or weekly exercise routine? Everyone has different capabilities and their chronic illness can affect them differently. So any type of movement is good. Are you sore and stiff in the mornings? I have learned it's incredibly important to stretch and get your body moving in the morning. Be sure to start slow and listen to your body and only do what you can. You must listen to your body and cultivate an awareness of what it’s telling you. Find what works for you and set a goal and routine. There might be times when you won’t be able to do as much as you were the week before. Even movement that’s as gentle as breathing exercises or mild stretching may be enough to lessen pain and improve your energy. Do what is best for your body. If you can do a full exercise program, modified exercise, yoga, or even water aerobics or exercises, go for it. Find something that works for you and just remember to listen to your body.
Socialization is key to self-care. But, often, it's hard to make time for friends and it's easy to neglect your relationships when life gets busy.
Close connections are important to your well-being. Reach out to friends or family and talk to someone about how you are feeling and what you are going through.
The 3 basic categories to look at are:
Social Media - Finding online communities that you can relate to and who understand what you are going through can become a lifeline and help prevent social isolation. Having others who understand what you are going through can bring an immense amount of support and positivity in a world of disability and mental illness. I, personally, right after I suffered my spinal cord injury and when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, felt lost, overwhelmed, and depressed until I found online support groups for people who were going through the same thing I was. It completely changed my life. I had a whole new world of positive disability representation and support. It was like having a new family of people who were just like me. Having support groups like this and linking with others over social media platforms are good outlets for information. Being able to connect with other people who have chronic illnesses and who are able to share information and link resources can be helpful.
Friends and Family - Family members often provide important emotional support that is needed when facing these stressors of our conditions. Studies have shown that support from family and friends may even affect your health directly through lowering stress hormones.I am so thankful for all the amazing people in my life who support me! There have been days that my conditions have knocked me to my knees but they have never left my side. Who in your life do you have for support? My sister has been a rock and picked me up and dusted me off and kept me going. She has been my guiding light and helped me find my way through my dark days and helped me find the light inside of me. This helped me grow as a person and set me on the path to pursuing my purpose. My amazing husband is such a big part of my support system. Having his support and having him to lean on when my chronic illness is kicking my butt has made a huge difference in my life He has taught me that my illness doesn’t have to limit my dreams and shown me that I don't need to be perfect to be loved and that my condition doesn't make me any less desirable. Can you schedule some time to chat with a friend? Are your friends supportive and uplifting? Is there anyone in your circle who brings you down or is less than supportive and understanding? When you have a chronic illness or disability you may need to let go of draining friendships to make room for more validating ones.
Social Activities - When living with a chronic illness or disability it's really easy to socially withdraw, perhaps because you don’t want to burden other people, maybe because you feel that you cannot keep up, or because you feel that getting out socially is going to make your symptoms flare. Whatever the reason, avoiding social situations is not good for your mental health; instead, ensuring that you are maintaining these social connections is a wonderful way to care for yourself. Have some fun! When possible, do something fun. I understand, as someone living with a chronic illness, that there are days when your body rebels against you and it's hard to even get out of bed. But when you have good days, take advantage of them. Gauge how you feel and know your limits so you don't overdo it. Manage your spoons and have a plan or set time for how long you want to be out and also let friends and family know when you have hit your limit. I’d recommend not doing something that requires too much energy but, pick something that brings you joy. This could be anything from a pamper day at home, going out to a movie, going to the mall and shopping, or even out to your favorite restaurant. Do something that’s going to make you happy. After not feeling great, a little pick-me-up can go a long way to helping you feel better.
Mental and Emotional Self-Care
The way you think and your outlook greatly influences your psychological well-being. It's important to have healthy coping skills to deal with uncomfortable emotions, like anger, anxiety, and sadness. Having an outlet to deal with all the stress that comes with living with a chronic illness or disability is imperative for your mental and physical health.
Emotional self-care may include activities that help you acknowledge and express your feelings regularly and safely. Whether you reach out to people in a support group that are going through the same thing as you, talk to your partner or close friend about how you feel, or set aside time for leisure activities that help you process your emotions, it's important to incorporate emotional self-care into your life. Mental self-care includes doing things that keep your mind sharp, like puzzles, or learning about a subject that fascinates you. You might find reading books or watching movies that inspire you and fuels your mind. Mental self-care also involves doing things that help you stay mentally healthy. Practicing self-compassion and acceptance helps you become happier, maintain good relationships, and improve your overall mental health. If you take a few moments each day to care for your well-being, then you will be rewarded with a positive outlook and improved mental health.
The 3 basic categories to look at are:
Reach out for Support - Support can come in many different forms of help. This can be in the form of seeking support from loved ones, a coach, a licensed professional (like a therapist or dietitian), your healthcare team, through community outreach programs, or support groups. There are many options you can look for. The support of your friends or family. You can reach out to a family member or friend who you can really talk to, who will listen without judgment. Someone to make you laugh and get your mind off all the stress living with a chronic illness or disability can put on you for a little while. We need these mental breaks and the support of others to help take off some of the weight living with a chronic illness or disability can put on us. Another form of support is a life coach. A life coach is a type of wellness professional who helps you make progress in your life in order to attain greater fulfillment. A life coach can help you clarify your goals, identify the obstacles holding you back, and then come up with strategies for overcoming each obstacle. A life coach can provide the support you need to achieve long-lasting change. Support groups are another great form of support. Whether it be a local support group in your community or a support group online. Support groups bring together people who are going through or have gone through similar experiences. A support group gives you the opportunity to share personal experiences and feelings, coping strategies, or firsthand information about diseases or treatments.
Leisure Activities - Find some hobbies you enjoy. They can be as low-key as crocheting, coloring, or something more active, like taking a dance class or gardening. Get creative. Writing and creating art allows you to cope with your pain and other symptoms and can distract you from what is happening with your body. Your symptoms are still present, but the process of creating can overrule the signals that your body is sending to your brain. You can get one of those adult coloring books or a sketch pad and lay down and or sit quietly while you are doing your activity. Or, whip out some paints and get busy with your kids. Playdough, Lego, collages, chalk art, poetry, candle-making, sewing, knitting, and beading, are all some great ideas. Spend time outside. There is something about just getting outside that is calming. Nature can snap us out of our headspaces and return us to a place of being that feels a lot better. You can go on a walk, do some gardening, or even just sit outside with a cup of coffee and enjoy the morning, you don’t have to do anything necessarily; just being outside is enough. Do what you can when you can. I tend to get discouraged when I set out to do something only to get shut down by pain. I have learned to accept the things my body is telling me. Some days you might want to go for a long walk, do a craft project, or do activities outside but your body isn’t up to it. Do as much as you can and rest when your body tells you.
Self Acceptance - Small accomplishments are BIG Victories! I used to set ridiculous expectations for myself. I used to think I had to get everything on my list done. I would run all of the errands, go to Dr. appointments, try to work and meet deadlines, clean the house and spend every weekend with extended family and friends. I would cause my symptoms to flare up and feel so worn out and overwhelmed. Now, I make a smaller, more realistic list and I have learned to delegate out tasks and ask for help when I need it. Whatever I get accomplished for that day is now ok, I have learned to accept my limitations and needs and work around them. When we get diagnosed with a chronic condition, it’s something we have to learn to live with for a long period of time or even for the rest of our lives. We’re automatically experiencing one of life’s top stressors when we experience the stress of our health conditions. Then, we add in all the other stressors from life along with the stress and anxiety from the day-to-day life of living with a long-term health condition. Have gratitude and give yourself some grace, for your body. Think about how hard your body works every day and focus on the positive things instead of beating yourself up for the things that aren’t working so well. Changing your entire perspective will help lower your stress and anxieties.
The demands of your chronic illness or disability and daily life can dictate what type of self-care you might need the most. Self-care isn't a one size fits all strategy. Your self-care plan will need to be customized to your needs and what is currently going on in your life. You don't want to wait until you've reached your breaking point. The goal is to take steps each day to make sure that you are getting what you need to deal with the stress and the challenges you face in your daily life. The bottom line is to really pay attention to how you’re feeling, acknowledge your feelings, and allow yourself the permission to take time for your self-care needs. Also, asking yourself how you’re doing and what you need right now is perhaps the most important act of self-care.
I hope you found these tips useful. As always I’d love to hear your comments, as well as any self care ideas you may have.
Do you need help creating a self-care plan? I’m here to help!
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