September is dedicated to treating ourselves well. But it’s imperative to do it all year long.
Cooler weather and vibrant leaves are just two reasons to love September. But did you know that September is also Self-Care Awareness Month? This occasion brought special significance to me this year, as a recent experience reinforced the importance of putting my own needs first.
By the time August rolled around, I was worn out. With daily temperatures in the upper 90s and extreme humidity, North Carolina summers are particularly brutal for someone with multiple sclerosis (MS). These conditions interfere even more with the scrambled nerve signals from my brain and render my legs into virtual noodles. Moreover, the effect exhausts my entire body.
One day it felt as if the world itself conspired to defeat me. I was already weakened by a continuous wave of scorching temperatures, and when I poured out the milk for my cereal, I realized it had spoiled. Oh well. There goes my breakfast. But that was just the beginning.
While trying to print church bulletins in time for Sunday’s service, an error message popped up on my printer, shutting down the entire operation. At this point, I almost wanted to laugh, but then I noticed our dog Finn’s muddy pawprints all over the floor. That’s when I reached the breaking point. Tears of frustration quickly burnt my eyes.
Times such as these reminded me of the late 1970s, when my mother fled to the bathroom, a Coke in hand, for a soak in the tub with her beloved bath powder — yes, Calgon, the very product that promised to take her away from it all. Hot baths in the summer are out of the question but the idea of retreating from the stress immediately appealed to me. It was time for some serious self-care because I needed a “time out” in the worst way.
When I interviewed Christina P. Kantzavelos, LCSW, the author of “Begin Within Healing Journal,” she emphasized that taking care of ourselves is not a luxury. It’s much more important than that. “Self-care is self-love and it’s imperative for those with a chronic illness. Everyone has different definitions of self-care: journaling, exercising, getting a manicure, or going to a doctor’s appointment. Taking good care of ourselves tells our body we feel safe, and we can prioritize recovery now.”
Those of us with MS know all too well the effects of stress and how quickly external events can overwhelm a body already compromised by disease. Below are my top eight self-care tips that may help you all year long.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? After all, isn’t the act of respiration involuntary? Yes, it is, but the quality of breathing varies wildly. When I’m surrounded by events outside my control, I find myself inhaling only the shallowest of breaths, which deprive my body of the full benefit of oxygen. Now, even in the middle of a crisis, I stop whatever I’m doing and expand my lungs with a full, deep breath. This act immediately lowers my heart rate and calms my nerves. Ahhh!
Now that you’re aware of your breathing, take a moment to clear your head and banish the negativity. Find a quiet place away from the hustle and bustle, and sit still and think of nothing more than your breathing. Close your eyes, pay attention to every breath, and enjoy the silence. For a type A personality such as me, this act takes effort, but it restores me instantly. If your brain wanders to random thoughts, just keep returning to your breath.
While it’s tempting to reach for a bag of potato chips and a giant tumbler of sweet tea when stressed out, these indulgences never truly satisfy me. When I consume unhealthy quantities of unhealthy foods, I end up feeling sluggish and irritable. There are much better fuels for my body. Tangerine herbal tea over ice and a cup of fresh raspberries from the garden not only lift my mood but energize my body. Nourish yourself by keeping nutritious snacks within reach at all times.
There are countless ways to pamper yourself, such as standing up and stretching, doing yoga, or even simply curling up for a short cat nap. Personally, I’m a huge fan of a DIY spa experience. I love a good facial mask — either a sheet mask from the drugstore or one I mix up myself. It’s not just for the youthful dew it imparts to my skin, but also for the instant cooling effect on my flushed cheeks. And because wearing a mask requires me to sit still for at least 10 minutes, I’m immediately transported to my own Shangri-La.
I’m a firm believer in the power of aromatherapy. While I know that essential oils won’t cure my disease, they do ameliorate my mood. Orange essential oil is my favorite, and it never fails to brighten my mindset and give me a boost of positivity and energy. Wintergreen helps abate hot flashes and lavender helps me snooze. Keep a vial of your favorite essential oil (or other aromas) near you for a quick shot of fragrant bliss.
When I’m already frazzled by a fickle printer or spoiled milk, the last thing I need to hear is news of the world — crime, inflation, politics. Closing down social media and taking a break from television allows me to concentrate on my own needs without distraction.
Now that you’ve tuned out external chatter, soothe your senses with your own favorite entertainment, whether reading, listening to music, or even cuddling with a pet. I like to listen to Enya while reading the poetry of Mary Oliver. In the early evening, after the day’s heat has passed, I’ll just sit on the porch swing and do nothing more than listen to the sounds of the forest and ruffle Finn’s ears.
Transport yourself with a good belly laugh by rewatching a funny animal video or remembering the last silly thing you did. For me, this was leaving out the sugar when making a birthday cake for my father! Or recall a favorite joke. What do you get when you cross a werewolf and maize? A corndog! If this brought even a tiny smile to your face, I believe I’ve proven my point.
Whatever you do to treat yourself, don’t hold out for a special occasion, warns Kantzavelos. “Waiting until we don’t have a choice, aka ‘aftercare,’ is not self-care. Why? It’s not preventive. Self-care isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. We must follow things that feel good, bring joy, and ease stress. This looks different for everyone but ultimately feels the same. In the case of someone with MS, the goal is to minimize the potential for a relapse or a worsening of current symptoms.”
From numbness in my feet to chronic fatigue, there are so many things about MS I can’t control. However, engaging in a little self-care helps me manage what I can. For example, after my own “time out” on that particularly rotten day in August, I emerged even stronger.
On the matter of the printer, I eventually reached out for help and my pastor kindly printed the bulletins. And when my husband called home from a trip to town, I didn’t hesitate to respond when he asked if there was anything we needed. “Fresh milk!” I said. As for the paw prints, I did eventually mop them up, and as I swished them away, I had to laugh. As it turned out, the floor needed mopping anyway.
Medically reviewed on September 30, 2022
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