Supporting patient self-care is recognized as a crucial factor in chronic illness care.
What is self-care?
First let’s look at what self-care actually is. Self-care is any action that you are taking to proactively take care of your health, whether that be physically or emotionally. It’s about taking responsibility for your own health either with help from professionals or of your own accord; essentially doing all you can to help yourself by making good choices and being active in doing things that improve your life and help you to function.
This definition is a very apt one:
The actions that individuals take for themselves, on behalf of and with others in order to develop, protect, maintain and improve their health, wellbeing or wellness.
Why is self-care so important in chronic pain patients?
Living with a chronic pain condition is very challenging and so working to take good care of yourself, to minimize symptoms and increase functioning as actively as you can, introduces a new level to the importance of self-care. Making good choices day to day that can aid you on your journey are very important.
Self-care isn’t just about taking time for yourself or doing activities that help you to relax, although these are valid self-care actions; it’s also about taking proactive approaches to sustaining and maintaining the best health you can possibly have while living with your condition.
Not only does taking responsibility for your own health ensure that you are giving yourself the best chance possible against your symptoms, it also allows you to feel empowered. Often when you live with a chronic pain condition you can feel helpless, but you are not: far from it! By actively putting self-care measures into place you are taking control of your own life and doing all you can to help yourself. This can help you to gain confidence, especially as you see the positive results of your actions on improving your quality of life and on your mood.
The reality is that although we may gain a diagnosis from medical professionals and may receive treatment, these professionals are not with us in our daily lives, we only see them from time to time. This study states that,
most care of chronic illness is performed by individuals in their own homes.
It’s up to us to implement that treatment at home, to follow up with those medications or therapies and make them part of our lives. Beyond that, we can look at ways that we can take the initiative and find self-care actions of our own.
Three areas of your life that involve self-care
There are three areas of our lives with chronic illness that involve self-care:
- Self-care related directly to your condition
This area of self-care involves managing your symptoms and ensuring you’re doing all you can to minimize them. This includes things like monitoring your symptoms, attending appointments with medical professionals, taking your prescribed medications, reaching out for medical help when you feel you need it, practising therapy methods at home and much more.
- Everyday tasks
Being able to do day to day tasks when you live with chronic pain can be difficult, but this part of self-care is about you doing all you can to be proactive with this, to maintain a healthy routine. This can include things like brushing your teeth, showering, doing housework, eating healthy meals and doing light activity among others.
- Managing the impact of your condition on your mental health
Living with a chronic condition can be very tough, and often has an impact on mental health which is completely understandable. This area of self-care is about managing the effect your symptoms have on your mental health and trying to reduce this, as well as understanding how your illness works so that you can overcome it through therapies such as CBT.
This sort of self-care can be focused around understanding that your illness does not define you, not allowing your symptoms to hold you back. This can include things like setting life goals without allowing your condition to limit you, finding balance and setting aside time to do things that really nurture your happiness as well as help you shape your future. This study found that,
People living with chronic illness describe the process of self‐care as transformational” and that, “It enables them to move forward with a sense of the future.”
Factors which shape self-care
The same chronic pain diagnosis may affect people in so many different ways because we are so individual. Fundamentally we are all different, so it’s vital not to compare yourself to others in a negative way. Self-care is a process of learning and adapting, changing goals along the way and learning what suits you and your life best, what helps you the most. Factors that can affect self-care include:
- Your support system
Who you have to support you in general and with your self-care has a big impact on how you can practice self-care and how motivated you may feel to do so. Having positive support from family and those in your life can encourage patients to stick to treatments and really put them into action more so, as shown in this study.
Social interaction is a big part of self-care in itself; maintaining connections in your life is important, but can be difficult if you have a chronic illness. Ensuring you maintain these connections is very helpful. This study found that,
social networks play an important part in the management of long-term conditions.
- Access to medical care
How easily you are able to access medical care to aid you in getting a diagnosis, receiving medication and taking part in therapies, can impact your self-care in a significant way. Self-care with chronic conditions works best alongside professional care, therefore where you live or how easily accessible medical care is to you could have a big impact.
Of importance is not only being able to access medical care, but who you see when you do see a doctor. If you are met with a professional who does not understand chronic pain, then you may not know what is causing your symptoms, what treatments are available or how vital self-care can be. If you see a professional who understands chronic illness and how to treat it, who advocates for self-care and introduces it as a way that can help you to manage your illness, then you are going to be far more likely to understand its importance as well as have the diagnosis and treatment you need.
- How you experience your symptoms
We all experience symptoms differently, even those of us who share the same diagnosis; for some people who experience their symptoms in a more extreme way, it may be more of a struggle to actively engage in self-care. Symptoms can vary from day to day, and can worsen or improve over time; naturally this will impact a patient’s ability and motivation to put self-care into practice.
- Mental state
Your mood affects how motivated you are to push yourself, to keep engaging in day to day tasks and to be proactive. Our mental state can have an effect on whether we may dedicate ourselves to self-care.
- Stigma in our society
How much stigma you face in the society you live in, whether that be from people around you, from family and friends or from the professionals you go to for help, can vastly impact you and whether you feel you can be open about your condition. It can affect whether you feel you can reach out for help, and can have a knock on effect on how you view your own self-care.
- Financial status
Financial worries can cause stress, which can disrupt self-care and worsen pain. Depending on where you live, financial problems may also restrict you getting the medical care that you need to help you deal with your disorder. Finances can also play a big part in aspects of self-care like eating a healthy diet, doing things that you enjoy, and having transport to get to appointments for example, as these things require money.
- Culture and spiritual values
Depending on what people believe in and what they feel will help them in relation to their cultural or religious beliefs, they may value self-care more or less than other patients, and may have other ways of coping with their illnesses. Everyone has individual beliefs and these are all completely valid, but this can affect our self-care in different ways. This study,for example, states that “in a number of studies, African Americans reported high use of spiritual resources”. These beliefs may make people more or less likely to prioritize self-care.
- Priorities in life
Depending on what is happening in your life, what you are aiming for and what stress you are experiencing for example, you may have priorities other than self-care. This can often push self-care aside, as other things are more important and are vying for your attention. This can affect how much time and effort you have to put into your self-care. This study states that, “people prioritise tasks in which they have the greatest emotional investment”.
The life you live can affect how much time you may feel you have for self-care and whether you are able to maintain a self-care routine. So many things about lifestyle could impact your self-care such as whether you work, what your routine is, what other responsibilities you have, even down to whether you have transport to do things like keep up with medical appointments and pick up medications.
This study concluded that,
Change in individual or family health, as well as change in psychological, social, spiritual, and financial status, can significantly impact self-management needs, expectations, and routines.
All of these factors essentially show one thing: that we are individual.
There is no one right way to practice self-care, you must work it around your own life, finding ways to implement self-care as much as you feel able and in the ways you feel suit your life best. If you aren’t able to perform a task that you have set for yourself, it’s important not to be hard on yourself. Self-care is a personal journey and one that you must apply to your own life, in context to the situation that you are in, learning at your own pace.
10 essential self-care acts for chronic illness
There are so many self-care activities that we could list, so many ways that you can help yourself, but here are ten that are very valuable and great places to start in a more general sense.
1. Eating a healthy diet
Providing your body with the nutrients it needs to help it function is even more vital when your body has more to deal with such as chronic pain. Eating the right foods that are going to give you energy, help your brain work in the best way it can, maintain your immune system and essentially help yourself as much as you possibly can, is a very positive way to help yourself. You can do your own research about foods that are going to aid you with your specific symptoms as well as asking your doctor or specialist for guidance.
2. Engaging socially on a regular basis
When living with chronic pain it’s really easy to socially withdraw, perhaps because you don’t want to burden other people, maybe because you feel that you cannot keep up, or because you feel that getting out socially is going to make your symptoms flare. Whatever the reason, avoiding social situations is not a positive action; instead, ensuring that you are maintaining these social connections is a wonderful way to care for yourself.
3. Exercising regularly
Living with chronic pain can make you feel you want to withdraw from exercise for many reasons, but using gentle exercise on a regular basis is so good for your body, mind and for your mood. It’s important to keep your body moving in order to keep it healthy.
4. Taking your medications
The thought of taking your medications as an act of self-care may seem something simple and small, but actually, consistently taking the medications that you are prescribed is a great way to care for yourself and minimize your symptoms with help from your doctor.
5. Attending appointments
Just as avoiding social situations can be easy, so can avoiding leaving the house to attend appointments. Ensuring that you are attending the appointments that are set with your medical team is vital for your treatment in order to allow the professionals to help you in the best way that they can and ensure that you are keeping up with your treatment, as well as helping your doctors to monitor your symptoms.
6. Asking for help when you need it
Ensuring that you reach out for assistance when you need it from family and friends to help you with things like taking you to appointments; to be there for you emotionally; to remind to take medications; helping you with healthy meals or encouraging you to exercise; whatever you feel would be beneficial, is a great way to actively help yourself. It’s also important to reach out to medical professionals when you feel that you need assistance. Asking for help is a sign of strength and not weakness; knowing when you need outside help and asking for it so that you can maintain self-care is tough, but is very proactive.
7. Allowing yourself to rest without guilt
Sometimes with all of this work on feeling positive and being proactive, it can be hard not to feel guilty when you need to rest. Allowing yourself to take breaks when you feel they are needed and trying not to feel guilty about that fact will allow you to really get the most out of that rest; there’s nothing wrong with taking some time for yourself.
8. Monitoring your symptoms
Keeping track of your symptoms so that you are able to see if there are patterns, if any symptoms get worse or better and if there are any new symptoms, can not only help you to provide the medical professionals with the information they may need to diagnose and treat you effectively, it can also allow you to realise when you may need to ask for additional help. It can help you in your journey to figuring out how you can make the most of your life with your condition.
9. Keeping a good sleep routine
Sleep is so important for anyone but especially when your body is working overtime. It’s also one of the hardest things to maintain when you struggle with chronic pain, but doing your best to maintain a good sleep routine is very proactive. This can be things like winding down for bed, taking your time to relax your body and mind as well as going to bed at the same time and setting a regular time to wake up.
- Maintaining good hygiene
Keeping good hygiene habits can be a challenge when you have chronic pain but is highly beneficial if you can work on maintaining as many of them as possible. Things like keeping up with regular showers, brushing your teeth, washing your clothes and bedding, are all things that can help to keep your body healthy and also make you feel so much more alive in general.
It’s ok to put yourself first
Sometimes putting yourself first can feel ‘selfish’, but this isn’t a bad thing; you have a right to put your own self first sometimes, to ensure that you are acting in your own best interests and doing what is best for your health.
We have to help ourselves before we can help anyone else, especially when we are living with chronic pain. There is no shame in caring for your own health and putting actions into place that are really going to benefit you; in fact, you should be extremely proud of yourself and praise yourself for every self-care action that you achieve, even if it feels small. Sometimes those small things are like climbing a mountain, but they are so worth it, and the more you do them, the more you are helping your own self to improve your health and your quality of life.
Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.
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