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It’s the buzz word of the year: self-care.
You’ve probably seen the articles about why self-care isn’t selfish and the lists of activities you can do to look after yourself. The stories invoke images of massages and spa days, 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 mobility are limited, self-care becomes a lot less glamorous than the picture painted in magazines and lifestyle blogs. Chronic illness 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 and your life, 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 with chronic illness.
What Self-Care Means When You’re Chronically Ill
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. Self-care also refers to leading a healthy lifestyle, managing chronic conditions and preventing further illness or injury.
There are 3 types of self-care:
- Basic Self-Care. Or as mental health activist Hannah Daisy calls it, #boringselfcare. 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. Sounds simple, but when you’re chronically ill, keeping yourself and your home relatively clean can be a full-time job in itself.
- Specific Health Practices. This type of self-care includes all the things you do to manage your health, from taking your meds an vitamins to following therapy, joining an exercise program and avoiding stress or other triggers. The particular practices are different for everybody, depending on your illness and personal situation.
- Indulgent Self-Care – the kind that’s been talked about in the media. Don’t get me wrong, self-care isn’t a luxury. Doing things you enjoy is vital for a happy and healthy life. You can’t pour from an empty cup. But reading a good book and getting a manicure can only be done after you’ve taken care of your basic needs and health practices first.
And that’s where the problem lies for chronically ill people.
When Self-Care Becomes A Full-Time Job
The irony is: the moment we need self-care in all its forms 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 wash, getting dressed, having breakfast – could take up so much of your energy that there’s little left to do anything else. Doing the things that make living possible can take the place of actual living itself.
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. And even if you are a high-functioning spoonie, you probably need your precious energy for more pressing matters, like work, studies and other responsibilities.
So how do you balance managing your health with living life?
1. Determine Your Bare Minimum
Doing a series of sun salutations when you get out of bed followed by a green smoothie bowl for breakfast makes a great daily routine. But if you’re chronically ill, that might be too ambitious. So let start by covering your basic needs first.
Set priorities and choose what needs to be done every day for you to feel ok. For me, that means taking a shower and putting on clean clothes, having nourishing meals most of the time and taking my vitamins. Your bare minimum could be something else, like going outside everyday, meditating for 5 minutes or simply changing your pajamas.
So make a mental checklist of the basic things you’d like to accomplish most days and don’t feel bad when that’s all you manage to do.
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.
3. Make ‘Boring Self-Care’ More Enjoyable
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. 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 self-care tasks like doctor’s visits 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 dentist or therapy with a short visit to the library or a break at your favourite coffee shop.
- In the spirit of ‘whistle while you work’: singing makes any activity more enjoyable – and it’s actually good for you too!
- Bring a book of 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 days with ‘Miracle Morning’ routines like exercising and visualisations will surely optimize your days and boost your health. But if that’s not doable for you, why not come up with simple self-care acts that require little time and energy?
- 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 in bed.
- Sit in the sun, even if it’s by an open window.
- Write down 3 things you are thankful for each night. Gratitude is one of the most effective ways to boost your happiness.
- Wear comfy pajamas.
- Set boundaries and learn to say ‘no’.
- Heat up a cherry pit pillow to soothe aching muscles.
Another way to incorporate more self-care into your days is by building multi-functional healthy habits. For example, by walking to the shops to buy fresh fruit and veggies you 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 your coping box. Other days it means dragging yourself out of the house and meeting up with friends.
More importantly, self-care is not just about doing things to feel better right now, but also constructively working on your long-term wellbeing. Don’t use the term to justify nightly ice-cream binges.
“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.” – Etty Hillesum
What’s your best tip for practicing self-care when you’re chronically ill?
- Why You Need A Coping Box (+How to Create Your Own)
- How to Learn to Accept Your Chronic Illness
- 14 Ideas for a Comforting Care Package for a Sick Loved One