Self-care tools for chronic health conditions

Adapting self-care techniques can help you to take control of your chronic health condition by maintaining a balance between mind, body and spirit.

The words
Photo: Pixabay/tinytribes.

You might have heard the term "self-care" as a buzzword to describe pampering yourself. While doing nice things for yourself occasionally like a massage or spa day is a great idea, the real meaning of self-care gets lost in this context. You might be wondering then, what exactly does self-care really mean and why is it important for managing chronic health conditions? According to an article published in the British Medical Journal, self-care is “the actions individuals take to lead a healthy lifestyle; to meet their social, emotional and psychological needs; to care for their long-term condition; and to prevent further illness or accidents.” In other words, we must be proactive about caring for ourselves. We cannot expect our health to be the sole responsibility of our loved ones and healthcare professionals; rather, we must take part in our own well-being, especially during challenging times.

It particularly makes sense to practice self-care if you are dealing with a chronic health condition that needs to be managed every day. Often, our own health doesn’t become a priority until it starts failing. Chronic disease can be a major source of stress, which can cause poor mental health outcomes. Adapting self-care techniques can help you to take control of your condition by maintaining a balance between mind, body and spirit. Keep in mind, self-care practices are very individualized and based on personal preferences and life experiences. While one person might feel relaxed after spending time outdoors in nature, someone else might enjoy listening to soothing music. For this reason, how you achieve optimal wellness is up to you.

There are a variety of ways to create your own self-care plan. It’s a good idea to have multiple activities to choose from to develop a self-care plan that best suits you. A good place to start is to come up with a list of ideas for your own toolbox and then start incorporating a few items as part of your daily self-care practice. Not sure where to begin? SAMHSA developed a guide to eight dimensions of wellness that can serve as an example. The guide includes emotional, physical, occupational, intellectual, financial, social, environmental and spiritual well-being.

The following are my top self-care recommendations:

Physical:

  • Fit exercise into your day. Physical activity doesn’t have to mean a gym membership, buying expensive equipment or doing strenuous activity. It can be as simple as stretching, taking a class, or going for a walk. Exercise has been shown to help with weight loss, reduce stress, and help decrease pain.
  • Balance your meals. Think of your plate as a palette and fill it with a rainbow of fruits and veggies to support a healthy immune system. Eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day to get steady energy and keep from overeating. It also a good idea to have some meals prepared for days when you are not feeling up to cooking.
  • Stay hydrated. Adequate water intake is essential for good health. Drink a glass of water with meals, keep a water bottle with you and sip throughout the day and replace sugary beverages with fruit-infused water.  
  • Most people don’t get the recommended amount of seven to nine hours of sleep. One way to improve your quality of rest is to practice good sleep hygiene. This might include setting a consistent sleep/wake time, assessing your sleep environment for comfort/proper room temperature, and reducing blue light by limiting technology a few hours prior to bedtime. 

Emotional/Spiritual: 

  • Be kind to your mind. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment with intention and learning to respond to negative emotions with compassion. Take time to appreciate the little things in life and incorporate deep breathing for relaxation.
  • It’s unhealthy to hold onto difficult feelings. Emotions are temporary, they come and go in waves and we must learn to manage them. It’s important to pay attention to negative thought patterns that creep up and work on putting a positive spin on things.
  • Journaling and practicing gratitude are methods shown to help process emotions. Remember, it’s not about focusing on what you lack, but appreciation for what you currently have.
  • Do what brings peace to your soul and connect to what you find meaningful. Whether it’s being in nature, yoga or meditation.

Social/Mental:

  • Self-care isn’t just about yourself. Chronic conditions can make us want to withdraw from activities with others. Make spending quality time with friends and family a priority.  Connecting with others can give us a sense of comfort knowing we have someone to listen to our problems and gives us something to look forward to.
  • Relating to and sharing your struggles with others who find themselves in a similar situation can provide a sense of community. Take a chronic disease self-management class or join a support group in your area.
  • Expand your mind. Carve out time for hobbies, reading a book and learning something new. 

Think of self-care as your own personal form of healthcare. Since chronic conditions are ongoing, they require constant management. By caring for yourself through acts of self-care, you can improve your own well-being. For more information on managing your conditions, visit MSU Extension's Chronic Disease website.

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