Self-Care When Illness Strikes

An unintended side effect of illness: I’ve lost some weight!

This summer has been interesting chez Green. I’ve had two illnesses that landed me in the hospital, and needed a procedure that put me out of commission for about a week. It has been a month since I was declared more or less back to normal, and I’m still low on energy and don’t feel anywhere near recovered.

I’ve been shell-shocked by the whole ordeal. As a natural health practitioner who eats clean and uses herbs, acupuncture, chiropractic and other holistic healthcare nearly exclusively, the world of beeping machines and various pills, antiseptics, and scary diagnostic things that zap my insides is overwhelming. And I didn’t even need surgery.

I treat people every day who make multiple trips to a hospital or outpatient facility for procedures each year. Most of my patients take some kind of prescription medication every day, and many more see their doctor for health concerns frequently. After my brief sojourn in the land of modern medicine, I feel for them.

The doctors and nurses who have treated me have been almost universally professional, kind, and compassionate. They have also been overworked, and in a system that treats bodies like machines.

It is surprising how quickly you begin to feel like a piece of meat when people take your clothes and blood, and make your bodily fluids their business. Even knowing it is exactly what I needed to get well did not make me feel positive about the experience. Feeling my body reel from each medication and procedure disoriented me and made me distrust my natural knowledge.

I am used to using food and herbs to gently allow my body to heal. In most cases, this approach is ideal, allowing your body to makes the minute adjustments that encourage balance. In an emergency, you take care of the potentially life-threatening problem and then help your body recover from any side effects. I have had to develop some strategies to help me recover from the more extreme but necessary healthcare I’ve had over the past several months. Here are a few things that have helped me:

  1. Remember every person recovers differently. I have taken far longer than I like to get my energy and verve back. My husband and friends keep reminding me that while I was very blessed in not having as severe a health issue as I could have had, I was still seriously ill. They also remind me that I have always been slightly frail, for lack of a better word, and usually take longer than average to recover from anything, even a night of poor sleep. Once I stopped fighting the time I needed to get better, I noticed I improved more quickly.
  2. Take better care of yourself than usual. I already eat well and try to give myself plenty of rest and moderate exercise. But this illness has made it necessary for me to be extra careful in my food. A little too much sugar, too much starch, or a food I know I do not digest well, and I will feel bad for at least the next twenty-four hours. A night’s lost sleep means a nap the next day, no arguments. If I don’t take care of myself, my muscles hurt, I can’t focus, and I’m likely to have an emotional meltdown. So I try to eat mostly simply cooked food with an emphasis on vegetables. When I stick to this diet, I feel better than when I eat too much sugar or spice. I also give myself plenty of rest, and try–the hardest thing for me–to keep calm thoughts and stay optimistic. I am a recovering worrier.
  3. Make a plan for the future. I have been diagnosed with a chronic illness that requires some maintenance. Since I’ve been used to mild symptoms and did not realize they signalled something more serious, I’ve had to educate myself. I knew the “book-knowledge” information from my schooling in healthcare, but learning what symptoms feel like in my body has taken concentrated study. I now have a plan for a)diet changes and herbal supplements as preventative changes when symptoms start, b) at what point I will go to a doctor, and c) when the best course of action is rest.
  4. Accept managing illness is a process. I am still learning the exact parameters to best manage my health. I have made mistake in overdoing things, and I suspect I could have pushed myself sometimes and did not. After being lectured by my friends and family to take the advice I give to others, I took the pressure off myself to be perfect. Now I don’t worry too much about misteps. My goal is to be healthy for years to come, not to be perfect today. I think my strategy is working.

I hope these tips will help you, whether you are dealing with a cold or a serious illness. If you are not healthy, you cannot enjoy life to its fullest. Take the time to take care of yourself so you can enjoy your time on this lovely planet.


Is Illness Your Only Time Off?

Photo Credit: Channah
Years ago, I saw a patient wanting help dealing with migraine headaches. He had these headaches almost daily, sometimes so severe he could not function and had to stay home, highly sedated and in bed, until they finally went away. We worked for several weeks, with slow, gradual improvement to his symptoms. One day, he came in with a strange look on his face. “For the first time in decades, I’ve been days without pain.” He canceled his next few treatments, and never came back to my office.

I wish I could say acupuncture cured his migraines, but I don’t think so. I think he has headaches as bad as he ever did, and when push came to shove, decided he needed his headaches. He had a co-worker who was constantly causing problems, and my patient ended up dealing with the consequences of his co-worker’s mistakes. Because of his relationship with this co-worker, he hated his job and hated going there each day. His work environment was demanding, and taking time off was discouraged. Everyone in the office knew about his severe migraines, and when he had a headache he could go into a quiet office and work uninterrupted. If the headache was really bad, his boss would suggest he go home, and compliment him on all his hard work. My patient even told me several times during our sessions that he felt “the migraines aren’t all bad–they’re my only break from my toxic work environment.”

So I was not terribly surprised when my patient suddenly stopped his treatments. As much as he hated the pain and limits his migraines put on him, he hated the environment at work more. He’s not alone. I often see people who come in for various health problems, who have one thing in common: for whatever reason, they do not believe they can create boundaries around their life, so their bodies create boundaries for them. Headaches, digestive problems, recurring head colds, anxiety attacks–for some patients, these are the bane of their existence and also their only way to feel safe taking some much-needed rest.

I’ve been in their shoes. For many years, my only time really off from my demands was when I caught a virus. I may have had days that I didn’t work, but I had social obligations I did not like, or that were more challenging than my limited resources could handle. I wanted to feel “productive” and “reliable,” so I kept making commitments I did not want to make, and doing things I felt I “should” do, even if I was exhausted. If I was honest with myself, I would have realized a day on the sofa reading a favorite book was much more rejuvenating to me than going out with friends to see a movie. But I wanted to think I was “having fun.” 

So I got several colds a year, forcing me to take time off from work. Since I was sick, I spent the days sleeping and–you guessed it–laying on the sofa reading a book. After more years than I would like to admit, I started scheduling down time. I have a lot fewer colds now. But I still sometimes feel guilty about making time for my decompression.

How about you? Do you go and go until something forces you down? One of the areas I try to focus when talking to patients is extreme self-care (thank you, Cheryl Richardson, for introducing me to the term). You are the most reliable asset you have, since you are the only one you can completely control. And if you are not functioning well, nothing else in your life will, either. Do you care for yourself at least as well as you care for your pets–or your car? Do you give yourself play time, good food, and maintain yourself with regular fuel, and time to repair when you are sick or injured? If you don’t because you have children, is your example of constant self-sacrifice and suffering what you want your children to follow? If you are giving because you must, even though it hurts and damages you, are you showing your family the outpouring of love that you imagine? How much better a gift is it to let your family learn to manage some chores or problems, and have time to go on a picnic or take a walk together?

I am still learning the wonders of self-care. Doing nice things for yourself is harder than it seems. I’ve learned that it is better for me to care for myself by not eating wheat and sugar than it is to give myself a tasty treat that leaves me feeling jittery and tired for the next three days. That sometimes I need to stay up late and sing along with Pandora, and sometimes I need to go to bed early and feel my husband’s arm around me as I sleep. That I can enjoy real time off better if I schedule time to clear my desk of extraneous paperwork instead of leaving early. Self-care is not simple decadence, even though I think a too-rich-to-believe chocolate truffle on occasion is a great way to be nice to me. It is taking care of your vehicle to be who you are–mind, body, and spirit. I hope you are on a path to take good care of yourself, and not force your body and mind to make you ill so you will take some time looking out for you.

*Details of the patient histories have been changed to protect privacy.

Three Tips to Living with Low Energy or Chronic Pain


Photo Credit: Stock.xchng photo

I have a secret. I am not an energetic person. Never have been–even as a kid, I got tired before everyone else. I was the one who was relieved when parents came to break up sleepover shenanigans so I could get some much-needed sleep. I was in a car accident years ago, and the residual pain taps my energy further while adding its own problems.

My practice focuses on the chronically ill, so I see a lot of people like me. Many of them have trouble mentally dealing with their health issues.  They feel like they’re missing out on life, or that all they can do is get the daily requirements done, then drag off for as much sleep as possible before doing it all again. They are constantly tired, and usually depressed.

I get frustrated at my energy levels, but all-in-all I handle them pretty well. I look at my life, and it is full–I go out with friends, I have a career that uses my talents, and a husband and cat who love me. I get a fair amount done most days, and stay better rested than I have been at any earlier point in my life. How do I do it? I’m glad you ask!

  • I accepted there were limitations. This idea is anathema to many. They want to fight with everything they have to get one more thing done, add one more activity, one more commitment, one more accomplishment. For those whose personality fits this lifestyle, it is great–the constant challenge energizes them, so fighting their limitations is a great coping strategy. Most of the people I see day-to-day don’t have this personality–they just wish they did. I stopped wishing for it a long time ago, and made a few policies: I rarely commit to extra responsibilities because I know I can’t be reliable at them.  If I get so little sleep that I cry when it’s time to get up, I cancel my day. I avoid places, other than my office, where sick people are likely to congregate–no trips to the drugstore during flu season, and no unnecessary gatherings with a gaggle of small children. Being sick takes a lot out of me, and since setting up this policy I have a lot less illness than I used to.
  • I eat well. As much as I used to like soft drinks and french fries, I almost never eat them now. I don’t digest either of them well, and the “hangover” of eating any kind of junk food gets in the way of the things I want to do. My husband and I invest a lot of our income on healthy food that tastes great. We both enjoy food, and both know how important it is to give our bodies good things. It was a lesson we have only really committed to in the past five years or so, but now that we have we get reap great dividends–a clear mind, better moods, and a gradual improvement in health all-around. My pain levels are usually very low, and my energy improves the better I eat.
  • I try to have only positive things in my life. Lest you think I live my life focused on what I can’t do and cannot eat, let me tell you my philosophy: I am a valuable commodity, I have a lot to give, and like any precious thing or entity, I must receive excellent care to be at my best. So I put as many good things into my life as I can. The lesson of positivity is relatively new for me–I used to feel that saying my life was going well was a form of bragging. Now I see it as a way to improve the world around me by not adding to the complaints that burden society. I try to look at my life with a positive perspective (“change your story, change your life“). I seek out positive people to read and emulate, like Michael Hyatt, Marc and Angel Chernoff, Chris Guillebeau, and others. Putting upbeat, can-do, honest words into my mind each day helps fight discouragement and gives me the raw materials to create my own positive creations. Taking care of my mind also gives me a safe place to deal with hard things. When I’m tired, cultivating a positive outlook means I don’t bow to discouragement as often, and dark days when I see only the negative are easier to turn around.

These are just three tips for dealing with fatigue and stress. They are simple, but not always easy. Do you have any tips you use for dealing with the issues in your life?

    How Socks Made My Day–Simple Self Care

    Photo Credit: Teresa Y Green

    I bought these knee socks last week. They are kind of a big deal. I bought them to go with my new boots–the boots come up to my knees, and I didn’t have any socks long enough to protect my legs from getting chafed.

    Usually, I am a frugal shopper when it comes to clothes. I buy very nice stuff, but I buy it from thrift stores, where Liz Claiborne jeans cost $5. When I got the boots and realized I needed socks that no one would be able to see, I planned to buy some plain socks in a pack from a department store. Then I went to Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, one of my favorite places. Their gift shop is full of beautiful garden-oriented things, from jewelry to plant markers. Wandering through the shop is like a small museum tour for me, oohing and ahhing over the the butterfly, flower, bird, or bee-themed cards, lamps, mugs, nightlights, and other items. So I stopped to admire the scarves, and saw a display of knee-high socks. Full of color, with patterns from paisley to butterflies to flowers. And saw these. I fell in love.

    While they were reasonably priced, one pair cost more than I had planned to pay for my three-pack of plain socks. They were totally impractical–no one but my husband would ever see them under my boots. I walked past them, then circled back. Then took them to the cash register and on to their new “forever home.”

    New socks are not a big deal. But I emphasize self care in my practice. Sometimes I find I need my own advice. These socks represent my plan to do little things to take care of myself, so I have plenty of resources to give to others.

    Sometimes patients resist the idea of self-care, because they feel others in the family have a bigger need, or they equate self-care with selfishness. Since I’ve been in that place–and go back and visit occasionally–I try to help. Self-care does not mean ignoring others’ needs to have whatever you want in life. It is taking care of yourself, so you can joyfully give to others. When I look at my socks, I feel happy. I smile. The touch of beauty in my day changes my mood. When I take my new, improved mood to the office, or to my husband, or anywhere populated by my fellow human beings, I am able to be a more positive version of myself. Solutions to problems come easier and can encourage people and be believable, because I am happy myself.  Interactions with cashiers, sales people, and my fellow drivers are friendlier–moments that may be fleeting for me, but can make the day of someone who needs a smile and basic respect.

    Too often, I find myself seeing life as something I can only manage by a combination of running full-tilt and hanging on for dear life, scraping by and fighting through fatigue and frustration. One of my goals for the next year is to have fewer moments in that mentality, and more moments enjoying the life I’ve been given, and sharing what I have and know with others. My pretty socks are a small item that enriched my life. The feeling of luxury they gave me made me feel expansive, and more capable of giving to the people in my life.

    Are there any small ways you take care of yourself? Please share them in the comments!

    Walking the Talk

    Photo by Alex Bruda

    I am a natural health practitioner. When I see new people, my advice includes instructions to eat natural, well-made food, to rest when they are tired or hurt, and to put self-care high on their list of priorities. I am surprised by the number of patients who won’t take time off when they lose an entire night’s sleep, or have an injury, or just need a break from relentless stress. When they say they have money issues or other reasons that keep them from missing work or other commitments, I wisely say “If you don’t take time for your health, it will make you take time for it later.”

    I followed my advice and took a vacation/religious retreat for two weeks. On my second day off, we were in a minor car accident. I have an old back injury, and the tiny bump we had aggravated it. Really, really aggravated it. I spent the rest of our break having difficulty sitting, more difficulty bending over, and lifting was not really an option.

    Throughout the vacation, I thought about my first day back at work. I had a busy day scheduled, immediately after two long days of driving home. I wanted to take that day off. But as anyone in business for herself knows, time off means you don’t get paid. No money had been coming into the coffers for two weeks, and a busy day cancelled meant a big negative on the income. I also had people who
    needed me. People who were counting on me to be there, and who had made their appointments weeks in advance. What to do?

    I put off making the decision until three days before I should be in the office. My back was only moderately better, and I could not see myself giving people quality work. And I was simply tired. I thought about what I would say to a patient who insisted on showing up for their job when they needed of rest and nurturing. Finally, I made the decision, and cancelled my day. No one yelled at me for cancelling his or her appointment, and I’m not bankrupt.

    I’m at work today, and my back is still not completely well, but I feel more confident in my advice to patients. When you develop the integrity to take your own advice, it becomes easier to give good advice. I truly value self-care, and hope that comes through in the example of my own life.

    What do you do to take good care of yourself?

    I Want to be Alone

    Photo Credit: trubluboy
    I am cranky today. I admit it. My husband is trying to be sociable, asking me questions to show he is interested in me and my day. I do not want to answer these questions. I want quiet. I want to read by myself, and write by myself. I want, in short, to be alone.

    Christine Lavin wrote a funny song about this desire, and in the end decides being alone eventually becomes being lonely, so she thinks better of it. I will, too. But right now, a world without another person or animal craving my attention, affection, help, or action seems wonderfully attractive.

    Why should this be so? The world, it seems, is made of introverts and extroverts. I’ve known this ever since I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Profile  in college. My results showed me right on the introvert/extrovert line, leaning slightly toward introversion. I usually don’t notice how this affects my personality until I have a lot of time either alone or with others. This week, I’ve had to be “on” a lot in business. Seeing lots of people, many of them new faces, trying to remember all the relevant facts you need in business interactions–names, details, running your words through a filter to be as congenial as possible. 

    It left me drained, even though I usually find working with people rewarding and energizing. So this week, I come home, craving the quiet I expect with my also-introverted husband. . .and he’s been alone too much. He wants to talk. He wants to connect. He wants interaction. He tries to be funny. I struggle not to snap at him.

    Is there a lesson, or an encouragement, to be pulled from this limited time of tension in the Green household? Here’s what I’ve gleaned:

    • People need what they need. Trying to be happy and cheerful in the face of demanding (or even not-so-demanding) patients and spouses and friends will only have limited rewards. If it’s downtime you need, make some downtime. If you can’t take a day and a book and head to your bedroom, then take 15 minutes in the middle of the day and run away, or go for a walk. Take five minutes and hide in the bathroom, if that’s the best you can do. Take some time to be alone. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Recharge. Repeat as necessary.
    • Realize it could just be you. When I was younger and people got on my nerves, I immediately assumed that the people were irritating, or intentionally pestering me. Now I realize that the attention I want to flee today is the same attention I usually crave. It is not fair to my husband, or the patients who have the right to expect a friendly demeanor, to blame them for my state. Situations like these are exactly the reason that self-care is so important. If you don’t give yourself what you need, you aren’t the only one who is miserable. Anyone within earshot–or in this day and age, within Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail contact–will be affected by your bad mood.
    • No one is perfect, and you can only expect so much. My crankiness reminds me that other people will not always be predictable and friendly, either. Whether illness leaves a friend feeling less than one hundred percent, or a serious stress distracts a server at a restaurant, we live among humans. Cutting each other some slack is part of our job as fellow beings. So smile and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
    Thankfully, Jim has found a book to read, and I am (almost) happily typing away, immersed in my own writing world. Tomorrow I will probably want to grouse about not going out, and not being around people for an outing. For tonight, I will get ready for bed, and curl up and sleep, or sit and stare at the ceiling and think, or find a book and read–any activity that only needs me. Being alone, or being allowed to not interact with the wonderful person who shares my life, will allow me to recharge my body and soul and be ready to embrace the world and my husband again very soon.

    How can you tell that it’s time for you to regroup and get centered? Please share in the comments!