Self-care – the practice of being self-aware and recognizing your own needs – has become even more important due to the global pandemic, especially for those who live with health conditions.
Now, in addition to the usual demands, people who have chronic conditions also are dealing with isolation and limited access to resources, experts say.
“The extreme stress of current circumstances makes self-care all the more important, but also much harder,” said Amy Orr, the author of "Taming Chronic Pain" and someone who lives with chronic illness herself. “Everyone is trying their best to get by, many are struggling financially, and most of us are stuck at home with loved ones, going a little stir crazy.”
Before the pandemic, self-care sounded simple enough. Eat nutritious foods. Get a good night’s sleep. Exercise regularly. Enjoy time with friends and relatives.
Those good habits aren’t as easy to practice when we’re staying at home and encouraged to keep away from other people.
“When we are operating in survival mode there is no awareness of our overarching quality of life because the brain only cares about keeping us alive,” said Dr. Felecia Sumner, a family medicine doctor in suburban Philadelphia and the author of "Fill Your Cup: A Physician's Guide to Caring for Yourself, Creating Your Purpose, and Masterfully Managing Your Condition."
In scary times, self-care tends to get placed on the back burner, said Dr. Kate Truitt, a licensed clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California.
“During experiences of chronic stress and trauma, the fear-based brain would prefer to spend this energy ruminating on the anticipatory fears and concerns of the world around us,” she said. “The fear-based brain is designed to manifest all of the worst-case scenarios it can conceive of in an effort to keep us safe.”
Here are five ways to break out of fear-based thinking and take good care of yourself:
1. Stay connected to people who care.
Special friends and family members have a knack for making us feel better. Stay in touch with them, even if it can’t be in person. Don’t wait for the phone to ring or a text to land. Make socializing with others via Zoom, FaceTime or other technology a priority.
“Be intentional about scheduling friend dates. Scheduling regular check-ins—and I do mean scheduling—is crucial,” Truitt said.
2. Start each day on a positive note.
Dr. Annette Nunez, a Colorado-based psychologist, suggests beginning each day with a positive statement. It could be something as basic like “I’ve got this!” Then do some slow relaxation breathing - in and out 10 times.
“It teaches your brain to be in a calm state,” she said. “We do not have control over the outside world. But we do have control over our minds and what goes on in our home environment.”
3. Treat yourself.
Instead of going to a restaurant, Nunez transformed her backyard into an outdoor oasis. Each weekend, she has restaurant take-out food delivered to her house and dines al fresco.
“It’s about changing your mindset. This is a new way of living and we don’t know how long it’s going to last. So, what can I do is establish a new pattern that makes me feel comfortable,” she said.
For added calm, try adding some relaxing sounds to your environment. Enjoying a backyard fountain, listen to the birds chirping or try recorded sounds, like falling rain and waves crashing.
4. Tend to your health.
If you need health care, get it. Use telemedicine whenever you can. And don’t let an acute problem go untreated.
“If your back hurts and you are going out to see a chiropractor, call ahead and make certain that safety procedures are in place,” Nunez said.
5. Turn it off.
If listening to bad news triggers your fear-based brain, Orr suggests unplugging. It isn’t necessary to stay on top of every nuance of the pandemic. You can always catch up later.
“Stop watching the news, stop following every tweet. You have to make room for yourself and your fears about how this crisis is impacting you. Try to let go of the little things, and focus on what you can control,” she said.