When Self-care Feels Radical: Putting yourself first might just save your life

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When Self-care Feels Radical: Putting yourself first might just save your life

By now, we’re all familiar with the concept of self-care. Winston, a conservation officer, recently closed a major wildlife case that required even longer hours than usual. “I took a few days off,” he says. “I needed to recharge and catch up on sleep.” Getting a pedicure or taking a “girls’ weekend,” like Steph, LaShonda, and Ginny do twice a year, are other classic self-care moves. But what if you need more than some extra shut-eye, pampering, or a break from household chores? What if time or financial restraints come into play? Self-care can also mean making difficult choices in the interest of your health and well-being.

When self-care is health care

Megan, 33, experienced severe postpartum depression after her son Evan was born. Over a six-week period, she was in and out of the hospital six times. At first, the recommended treatment included a support group, getting more sleep, and antidepressants that were safe to take while breastfeeding. But when Megan’s symptoms continued, self-care meant prioritizing her health over everything else. Megan stopped breastfeeding in order to take different medications for depression. Family members came to help when Megan entered a residential treatment program. “It was gut-wrenching to stop breastfeeding, and so hard to leave my son, but I knew he needed a healthy mom,” Megan said. Radical self-care meant taking the necessary time and space to heal.

Self-care life adjustments

Prioritizing mental or physical health might also require moving or changing jobs. Ian, an IT manager, saw one specialist after another for his irritable bowel syndrome. Finally, doctors identified stress as the main cause. He quit his job and he and his wife moved to a rural area where he farms using traditional methods – and has far fewer symptoms. Janina struggled with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) when her husband’s job took him to Anchorage, Alaska. After two winters, he requested a transfer back to the Lower 48 to avoid the short winter days and long nights. (Learn more about SAD here.) Not all life adjustments have to be this dramatic. They may include going to treatment several times a week for a physical or mental health condition, switching to a new diet, getting a companion or service animal, or hiring someone to handle chores you can no longer do.

Putting on your own oxygen mask first

If you value serving and caring for others, this type of serious self-care can be especially challenging. It can be easier if you consider that taking good care of yourself makes you better able to help those who depend on you. Hoshi learned this during a caregiving stint with her 80-year-old mother, who has multiple medical conditions. Hoshi’s father dutifully cared for her mother’s every need and catered to her whims. After two days, Hoshi found herself exhausted from trying to keep up with the minutiae of her mother’s care routine. Hoshi explained to her mother that she would need to simplify the routine because she was working as well as caring for her mom. She also prioritized taking care of her own basic needs during caregiving days. This sometimes meant that when Mom called, Hoshi’s response was, “Just a minute!” She made a point of taking a walk every day, ending her “shift” at 8 p.m. and eating her own meals before preparing her mother’s nutritional supplements.

Why help yourself first?

In case of an in-flight emergency, airline safety rules tell parents to put on their own oxygen masks before placing them on their children. Why? Because a parent who’s gasping for breath will do a much poorer job of properly fitting the child’s mask. By giving herself appropriate rest, Hoshi was improving the job she did as caregiver. The break restored her energy and helped her think more clearly, avoiding mistakes in preparing her mom’s nutritional drink. It also helped her maintain her own health.

When self-care seems out of reach

When you’re incredibly busy, fighting depression or grief, or simply can’t figure out what would help, start with a few basic steps:

  • Add healthful foods to your diet.
  • Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep, or at least rest, each night.
  • Reduce your exposure to screens and devices, and increase your exposure to nature.
  • Reach out to someone you trust.

I wrote a booklet called “The Caregiver’s Companion” to help you take care of yourself even when you are busy and overwhelmed. Another great option is to journal. Sometimes reflecting with a piece of paper and a pen, mapping out challenges and considering where you can make modifications can help. If you aren’t sure where to start, you can find a wide variety of journaling prompts here.

Call for help

You might think about calling the doctor only when you have an obvious physical symptom, such as a broken bone or fever. But stress, lack of appetite, sleep problems and changes in your mood can also be signs that you need care. In some cases, self-care means reaching out for professional care. Most clinics and doctor’s offices have a number where you can leave a message to request a call back. This usually leads to a talk with a nurse or other provider about what’s going on with you. Your doctor may make specific recommendations from there.

Don’t let perfection get in your way

Exercise is a great form of self-care – and one that often gets skipped because it can seem like a big deal to get ready. As J.T. says, “Everyone says, ‘Walk for 30 minutes.’ OK, but I have to find that time, and then I have to put on the right clothes, and then I have to find my shoes … and once I’m back, I have to do the reverse and put everything away. My 30-minute walk is now 45 minutes away from my desk. Walk on my lunch break? Then when do I eat? And what if the weather is bad, like it is the whole winter in Minnesota?” Getting serious about self-care may mean modifying standard advice so it works for you. Carmela decided that eating at her desk was an acceptable tradeoff for the energy boost and relaxation she got from walking. She keeps a pair of walking shoes under the desk and a light jacket in her cubicle – no special workout clothes required. On really bad weather days, she may walk the skybridge of the hospital where she works or do a video walking workout at home. Most importantly, though, she stopped putting pressure on herself to do exactly 30 minutes of outdoor walking each day. “Some is better than none!” she says.

You also want to avoid “self-care” that simply adds expenses and activities to your life. Meg Selig points out in “Self-Care: All Things to All People?” that self-care activities can be expensive and take a toll on your health. A night out with the guys to relax may lead to too many drinks; taking a lot of supplements can bust your budget quickly and harm your physical and mental health if your doctor is not overseeing everything you take. She provides a handy guide for telling the difference between true and false self-care. The takeaway: Taking good care of yourself can mean making big changes, like moving. Or it can mean seemingly small changes, such as grabbing some breakfast before you go take care of someone else, or simply drinking more water. I hope you’re inspired to think about what really taking care of yourself might mean, from large adjustments to small ones, and to take a step toward better self-care today.

Resources for Serious Self-Care