How to Help Yourself

This blog is dedicated to the topic of caring for yourself. Each post I write will add to this basic introduction.

[image description: a hand-lettered quote that says in capital letters “Be nice to yourself. It’s hard to be happy when someone’s mean to you all the time.”]

You may be newly impacted by a diagnosis or this may be something that has affected you since your first moments on Earth. You may feel so disconnected from your true self that you have no idea how to help yourself.  Whether you feel discouraged or empowered, scared or excited, depressed or joyful, I have a secret for you: wherever you are in your journey is perfect! You may desire to get to somewhere else, but just know that where you are right now is fantastic. You have the right to feel whatever you feel; to receive support, love, and empathy from others (and yourself); and to want to move forward or at times slink backwards for a little bit so you can rest. These are all normal and healthy feelings.

Know that everyone reacts differently from each other. You may be relieved to have a diagnosis. You may be terrified because you still don’t have one. You may just have realized how bad things have gotten. You may be on an upswing. Again, you’re great wherever you are. There are 7 stages of grief. I choose to share this with you because there is a spectrum of emotions when something changes your life in an (ir)reversible way. Your journey will be different from anyone else’s journey because no two people are the same.

  1. Shock and denial (“That can’t possibly be happening”)
  2. Pain and guilt (“I am suffering incredible amounts of pain”)
  3. Anger and bargaining (“Why me?”)
  4. Depression, reflection, and loneliness (“Am I alone in this?”)
  5. An upward turn (“Okay, I may be able to work with this”)
  6. Reconstruction and working through (“Okay, I can really work with this”)
  7. Acceptance and hope (“My life will be different, but it is still my life and I will live it to the fullest!”)
[image description: a comparison of what we think others think when they look at us versus what they’re actually thinking. Two cartoon owls are the basis for this image. One on top is slumped over and says on it “annoying, mistakes, fuck up, ugly, never says the right thing, loser hobbies, disappointment.” The one on bottom stands tall and says “some weird stuff I guess, probably doesn’t like me, neat clothes/nice eyes/oh hey you watch that show too, just kind of a person really? Who knows, maybe they’re pretty cool.” The owl on bottom looks surprised to realize that it was its own worst critic; others around it were thinking much kinder things].

It can be hard for any of us to learn to love ourselves; now, throw in the wrench of feeling out of control over your own body and mind. It can feel impossible. Body-image satisfaction and self-esteem levels in people with chronic illness are significantly lower than healthy population levels. Because of the challenges that lie ahead of you, I have a few tips for you in your journey. I hope in whatever way I can, I can be part of your journey to help yourself and love yourself, in spite of (and because of!) your body’s anomalies, pains, and ailments.

  • Practice self-compassion.
    A moment of self-compassion can change your day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” – Christopher Germer

    One of the topics that Brene Brown, my favorite author and idol in the social work field, writes about is the importance of self-compassion. We cannot love others fully until we learn to love ourselves. In the case of people with chronic illness, we cannot love our flawed lives until we learn to love our flawed bodies. This is the time when we need self-compassion the most. We need to be the kindest to ourselves when we feel the worst. There are 3 important elements of self-compassion to strive for and 3 to avoid.

    Strive for: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness
    Avoid: self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification

    Take this questionnaire written by Dr. Kristin Neff and see where you stand. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? If you understand that others have flaws, you can learn to accept your own. If you move away from judging yourself, you can learn to be kind to yourself. If you notice your positive and negative thoughts and let them float by you without affecting you deeply, you can keep yourself from always falling victim to negative thoughts.

    The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown has changed my life by encouraging me to practice self-compassion every single day. It’s one of those books I don’t lend out of my personal library because I read it constantly and always get something new from it!

  • Learn what feels good and what doesn’t. Accept your limits. Put these habits into practice. 
    Others may look down on you when they hear or see that you are trying to put yourself and your health first. We live in a society that often honors the “my life is worse/busier/crazier/more ______ than yours” attitude. When I tell people the changes I’m implementing in my daily life to make myself feel better, they sometimes look at me quizzically, as if to say, “I don’t have time to sleep 9 hours a night and I don’t understand how you do. You must have less work than I do.” Not necessarily true. I’ve chosen deliberately to see myself as my number one priority, which is strange in our work-ourselves-to-discomfort-and-death society.

    Do you need 9 hours of sleep? Change your schedule so you can get those 9 hours. Don’t be sorry that you need to do this for your own health. If you need to quit some things in order to spend your precious wakeful time on things you love, go for it. You can’t be in a million places, let alone two, at once! It is tough to disappoint others by saying “no” to things they don’t expect you to, but you must say “no” more often than “yes” when you are in poor health, and that’s okay.

    Do you require any accommodations in your daily activities in order to get them done? Make the accommodations as necessary and ask others to help you.

    Do you want to feel more energetic, lively, and well? Talk to your doctor about different gentle exercises you can do, relaxation techniques that you can practice, dietary changes you can make, and supplements you can take – whatever their suggestions are. Experiment with the suggestions. Find the gentle exercises that work best for you. Make sure you’re eating the best diet for your condition, even if it can make it a pain in the neck to go out with friends for a meal. Be that person who asks if they can make it gluten-free, if you’re on an anti-inflammatory diet. Do what you can to be as in control of your health as possible without taking more medicines than you can remember. As my doctor has put it, “medicines can do anything at any time.” Obviously necessary in some amounts, but experiment to see if you can make some of the changes without adding a pill of every different color and name to your life.

    Do you want others who are trustworthy and caring to know your story so they can support you? Figure out who can be an ally and speak up. If you don’t have one, now’s the time to find one. Look around you. If there’s no one in your life yet who you feel you can really trust, you’re in the right place to find someone else: the internet. There are also great support groups and meet-ups for people with chronic illness. Do a Google search for groups like that in your town. Human beings weren’t meant to live alone and none of us truly do, if we know where to look.

  • Ask for what you need from others. 
    Being clear and open in your communications will help you immensely. If you want others to ask you how you’re feeling, let them know; the opposite is true as well. You can ask people for specific favors that will make your day easier. You can ask for support, love, and care in whatever ways you need the most. You deserve it.
  • Try different forms of self-care and find what works best for you.
    Everyone is different. Find what works best for you and put it to practice. Set aside at least 10 minutes every single morning, afternoon, and evening just to care for yourself. You will feel benefits (less anxiety, for just one example) and you will learn that you are worthy of your own time. Make this a treasured part of your daily life, something that makes you feel whole and joyful!

    -Meditation/mindfulness exercises/coloring
    -Yoga/gentle exercise/walking/hiking out in nature
    -Journaling/writing/making art/appreciating art
    -Talking/connecting with loved ones
    -Individual and group therapy
    -Reading books either for pleasure or for edification
    -Practicing gratitude, kindness, and hopefulness
    -Spending time with your faith

Be open to possibility. Be willing to fail. Be willing to feel what you feel. Be willing to try new avenues. Be willing to love others. Be willing to receive others’ love. Be open to the idea that you are worthy; your ailing body does not define you.