Why Self Care is So Important When You Live With a Chronic Illness
When we don’t get our needs met, we can’t thrive.
I had never really learned what self care was, except in the context of preventing burnout, which can be a big problem for social workers. When I got sick, self care took on a whole new meaning. Of course, when I learned about self care through my social work program, I was starting the toughest semester of my academic career while also working an internship AND two jobs to get by, so self care was a luxury I didn’t have.
Unfortunately, when we get diagnosed with a chronic illness – something we’re going to have to learn to live with for a long period of time or even for the rest of our lives – we’re automatically experiencing a deficit in our human developmental needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is used today as a model for health and wellness. When you have a chronic illness, think of this hierarchy as a model of self care. If these self care needs aren’t met, we will not thrive while managing our illness. Not having good self care can also lead to other illnesses coming to the forefront and a gradual wear and tear on us physically and emotionally.
Perhaps It’s been difficult to find ways to implement a self care routine, which can lead to a downward spiral of physical and cognitive symptoms, depression and feelings of frustration with how to better your situation.
It’s true that stress and deficient health is a part of living with chronic illness. However, if we can learn to build up our resiliency to stress while also reducing unnecessary stress in other life areas through adequate self care, we can greatly reduce our overall wear and tear on our body. When we have a self care plan it is entirely possible to manage your illness with ease.
Keep reading to learn how needs deficiencies affect your chronic illness.
What Could Happen If I Don’t get my basic needs met?
The biggest downside of not getting your basic needs met is that you may struggle emotionally and physically to deal with everything life throws at you and the overall status of your illness can suffer.
When I was working as a school social worker, full time as a salaried employee for a local school district, the expectations were much higher than the amount of time we had available to meet them. This left me feeling more and more depleted, unaccomplished and stressed. I didn’t sleep well, I often skipped lunch and slept through dinner. My Lupus blood markers (c3 and c4) were suffering despite pharmaceutical interventions and I was told by my rheumatologist that ‘quitting your job is the best thing you can do for your health’.
I took this very seriously. So I made the decision to leave my job, albeit with a great feeling of loss and failure. I cried while I sat in my car holding the form upon which my doctor wrote ‘Amanda will not be returning to work for medical reasons..’
This crushed me – I was a 33 year old woman who had worked since the age of 15. What would this mean for me? What would my future look like?
Despite my initial worry, it was definitely the best decision I could have ever made. Just one month later my c3, c4 values increased by a whopping 19 points and ultimately it led me to doing what I do now, which is a blessing.
When it comes to chronic illness, I have found, that most of us can look back and find some significant stress or lack of self care in our lives that could have created a ‘happy place’ for it to thrive and flourish. So what happens when our illness presents itself and now our stress has increased even more?
Just Say NO
We have to start taking a good, hard look at our lives and make our self care the number 1 priority.
No more saying yes to everything we’re asked to do.
No more eating fast food because it’s the ‘easier’ option.
No more hanging out with friends who repeatedly disregard our feelings.
No more binging on Netflix instead of physical activity.
No more rationalizing that sleepless nights are ‘just what I have to deal with now that I’m sick’.
No, No, No.
I did all of these things and I can tell you – It just isn’t helpful and it can make things worse.
While it’s easy to adopt a sense of helplessness around what is ‘normal disease activity’ and symptomatology, sometimes our symptoms are worsened by lack of exercise, proper diet, poor sleep, stress and emotional decline. But how do we know the difference so we know when to act?
We introduce a kick ass self care routine.
What will having a self care routine do for me?
Although chronic illness brings with it many challenges, including increased risk for depression and anxiety, we have the potential to make this experience easier to manage. When we choose to implement a self care routine effectively, we can isolate symptoms that come up from the disease itself, be better prepared to make changes for optimum disease management and ultimately live our lives to the fullest.
We do this, through finding healthy self care activities and adopting a #sorrynotsorry mindset about taking self care time FIRST and putting everything else second.
The first thing I did to care for myself was to quit my stressful job. Once I did that I had to get really honest with myself about what I would do for work that could support my needs but MOST IMPORTANTLY allow me to rest, make disease related decisions and live my best life with these illnesses.
Over time, I learned that managing a chronic illness can be stressful, overwhelming and scary, but it doesn’t have to be. As part of your self care routine, you can break down each level of the hierarchy of needs and set new goals for yourself.
At Imagine Life Therapy, I help clients work through all their fears, worries and stresses related to disease management, and help them create a self care plan that allows them to reach optimum functioning, while also managing their illness effectively.
Here are some ways you can too, based on the hierarchy of self care needs:
Level 1 – Physiological needs
- Food. What are you eating? Are your meals and snacks nutritious? Are you getting the nutrients you need, specific to your illness and how it is affecting your body? Are your medications depleting any nutrients you might need to supplement?
- Water. Are you drinking the right amount of water for your body? While the 8 – 8oz glass recommendation is a ‘general’ guideline, when you have an illness 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 can help you thrive.
- Rest. Are you getting enough sleep? Most people should be aiming for 7-9 hours a night, but we know having a chronic illness can mean you need even more. More importantly, what does the quality of your sleep look like? Are you getting restorative REM sleep?
Level 2 – Safety & Security
- Security. Does your life feel stable? Is there a small step you can take to bring more stability into your life? Are your finances a cause of stress for you? Do you have health insurance? Do you need support in these areas that might be offered in your community?
- Safety. If you’re not feeling safe from harm, is there someone you can call? If you feel anxious, do you have a coping strategy to ease the fear? You might find it helpful to make a list of techniques with your therapist that work for you, and refer to it when you are worried.
Level 3 – Human Connection
- Friends. 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 you may need to let go of draining friendships to make room for more validating ones.
- Intimate relationships. If you have a partner, how long has it been since you’ve spent some quality time together? Perhaps you could schedule a fun date? If you’re single, why not take yourself on a date? Find new ways to love this new body you’re in.
Level 4 – Self Esteem & Accomplishment
- Accomplishment. Take a few minutes to make a list of your accomplishments, big and small. What have you achieved today, this week, this month, this year? Focus on the small things too. Now look to the future – what do you want to make happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?
- Mastery. What was the last skill you’ve learned? Is there something you’re curious about that you want to learn? Mastering a new skill can help us feel accomplished even with a chronic illness that limits what we’re able to do.
- Recognition. When did you last receive a compliment? What did they say about you? Is this something you recognize yourself for? Giving just as much attention, if not more, to compliments, strengths and positive qualities as we do our weaknesses, can help reduce stress.
Do you need help creating a self care plan? I’m here to help!
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