Last week I discussed how to handle children in regard to the Boston bombings. Now it’s the adult’s turn. Whether you are a parent, teacher, grandparent, aunt or uncle, it can be very difficult to handle personal feelings of loss or anxiety when you are the caretaker for a young child. Similarly, if you are the caretaker for an elderly relative, you may feel as if there is no time for you to manage your own emotions on top of your caretaker duties. Finally, if your job is caretaking (i.e., health care workers, etc.) you may experience what we term “compassion fatigue”, a situation in which you begin to develop a sense of apathy toward yourself and others.
Think of yourself as a well: the good things you and others put into you fill the well with clean, refreshing water. When you care of others, you have to take some water out of the well for them. If you take too much out, there will be none left for you. If you are putting all of your energy into others, all that’s left for you are dregs left at the bottom of the well, dirty and full of sediment. When this happens, we find ourselves very tired, with little energy to enjoy the parts of our lives we used to look forward to. When the situation worsens, we feel almost polluted by the pithy amount of self care we receive, and we may come to resent those we care for and even be aggressive toward them.
The best solution? To fill your well, of course! First, you need to focus on the bare minimum of self care: eating, sleeping, bathing, and the like. Check out your diet: I always say, you are what you eat. If you are filling yourself with empty, greasy food, you’ll likely feel tired and draggy. If you are eating fresh, healthy food, you will have more energy. Aim at eating at least three meals a day, and if you feel your weight is an issue, follow up with your health care provider to come up with ways to improve your overall health.
For sleep, aim at going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. This is important, as the body craves routine and regular cycles of sleep will encourage the body to engage in deeper, more restful sleep. Don’t forget: sleep is when the body works through things and aids in decreasing overall daily anxiety. Poor sleep increases agitation and anxiety and severe sleep depravation can cause psychotic symptoms. And please don’t give me any lame excuses about your schedule; sleep is an investment in your health. If you can dress yourself daily, you can definitely come up with a sleep schedule. If you’re confused about sleep, look for my next article, Sleep Hygiene, to give you everything you need to know about correcting your sleep patterns.
I’m not going to address bathing too much, except to say that you should be bathing regularly, as this is an investment in yourself and your health. I have seen some horrific skin infections on people who neglect their hygiene, at times developing into staph infections and leading to excessive scarring and in extreme cases, loss of body parts. So scrub it up, people!
Now that we’ve covered our basic needs, lets look into what makes YOU happy. Make a list of your ten favorite things to do. When was the last time you did these things? Does it seem like there’s just not enough time in the day to do some of your favorite things? Do you feel like they pale in comparison with the needs of others? Wrong and wrong. You cannot care for others if you don’t care for yourself. You know when you watch the video in the airplane about what to do if the air masks are deployed? You put it on yourself FIRST, then you help others. Why? Because you can’t help anyone when you’re in danger yourself. Caring for yourself should be your top priority.
This may sound selfish, but it isn’t. Now if I said, take care of yourself and ignore the needs of others, well that is selfish. But if I said, pregnant mothers need to eat to sustain the baby, you wouldn’t call that selfish, would you? Or if I said, caregivers need to take the flu vaccine and that sick caregivers should not be around elders due to the high risk of infection, you wouldn’t call that selfish, either. This is a simple cost/benefit model: the cost of self care is far outweighed by the benefit it gives you, which you in turn give to others. Now that’s a nice trade-off.
Let’s get back to your list. I want you to look at it again and decide on one thing you will do for yourself within the week. Ideally, I’d like you to take at least 30 minutes for yourself daily, but beggars can’t be choosers. Don’t worry too much if you struggle with it: you are out of practice, and you have to start somewhere. If those nagging, deceptive thoughts of selfishness and guilt try to overtake you, gently remind yourself that you are allowed to engage in self care, and that it is only by caring for yourself that you will have the energy to care for others.
Speaking of energy, did you know that energy begets energy? It’s true. Engaging in light activity for just 30 minutes a day will boost your overall energy and improve your mood and sleep. I often tell my patients that if I could bottle sunshine and exercise, I could cure most mental health disorders. Why? Because the vitamin D in sunlight is a known mood booster, and exercise releases those lovely endorphins that keep our mood elevated. I’m not asking you to join the gym or do a Spartan race, just take a stroll around your block. Bonus: taking good care of your body boosts your self esteem and confidence, leading to better performance in everyday tasks. Is it any wonder that those who exercise tend to be promoted more quickly than their couch potato counterparts? Bosses feel that those who are physically healthy are more motivated and harder workers than those who do not, even if their overall performance in the office is average.
Finally, I would strongly suggest becoming involved in some daily activities to enrich your spiritual life. This can be pretty much anything that speaks to your religious and spiritual beliefs and allows you to connect with a power higher than yourself. It’s important because many things in this world are chaotic; our natural instinct is to try to control them. When we do this, we tend to not get the outcome we want and we expend energy uselessly. Spiritual beliefs allow us to remember that there are goals outside of our daily existence, and that we all deserve to rest and care for ourselves. Did you know that prayer is the most used form of meditation in our world? Studies have shown it lowers blood pressure and improves our sense of well being. People who categorize themselves as spiritual tend to have less anxiety and feel more relaxed than those who don’t.
Engaging in your own self care may seem daunting at first, but I promise you that the benefits will be well worth it. Just like any new habit, it will take a good 90 days of regular self care to make it stick. Your body and the people you care for will thank you.