Self-care strategies during a time of uncertainty
By Jane Borda
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I have lived experience with Bipolar Affective Disorder, also known as manic depression. I have had many hospitalisations but these are now becoming few and far between. I make sure my friends and family can recognise my early warning signs. I have developed a Mental Health Care Plan, because if I don’t care for myself I can’t care for my loved ones.
At one end I am too well, my brain is working overtime, it’s firing on all cylinders—I become garrulous, loquacious, wordy or verbose. I have limitless energy and am unusually creative or productive. Then I crash and I slide from having drive and energy into the isolation and hopelessness of depression, believing myself to be an abject, dismal failure.
I have discovered that I must look after myself by putting me first, and not feel guilty about that. Self-care is critical in this overwhelming and isolating time of Coronavirus. The following strategies work for me and I hope they may help you.
1. Plan Your Day:
Due to Coronavirus I’m not currently working so planning my day has taken on extra significance. I use a weekly planner (which you can get off the internet or create your own). Mine runs from Monday to Sunday and is broken down into hourly slots from 8am to 8pm. It is filled with one to two hour activities and includes everything from lunch to daily household chores. I then create a list of specific tasks to do within my hourly time slots. For example the activity—gardening on a Tuesday—would be broken down on the list as plant bulbs or water pots. I may complete the tasks on the list in a day or it may take up to a week. You can list your tasks in order of importance or sometimes I divide the list into indoor and outdoor. Please note that the weekly planner is designed to be flexible; days and times can be swapped.
2. Have Personal Quiet Time:
During my ‘time-out’ I like to potter around the garden, read, complete word puzzles (especially crosswords) and write—anything from journaling to poetry. I find these help me switch off from the chaos and confusion of the outside world. I also find classical music and relaxation CDs soothing.
3. Get Plenty of Exercise:
I realise that gyms are currently out of the question, but a lot of those exercises can be done at home with improvisations or you could employ a personal trainer. For me exercise means walking in the great outdoors, but even around the block will do. I walk for about 30 minutes approximately five days a week, mostly along the creek near my house. Once a month I’ll do a longer walk further afield such as at the beach or in a Conservation Park. Walking is also a great way to get out into the sunshine, I find this crucial when dealing with depression. Cycling, running and swimming are equally effective; I swear by aqua aerobics when I’m not having to socially isolate.
4. Practise Mindfulness:
Regularly stop what you are doing and bring your focus onto yourself. Take a moment to breathe. John Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” I try to live one day at a time by following the wise words of the father of Taoism, Lao Tsu who suggests, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” This way of thinking has assisted me enormously.
5. Talk to someone:
This can include trusted friends and family or even a Helpline counsellor. Talk to an understanding, non-judgemental person, where you know it is okay to talk about anything and to be emotional. Getting things off your chest or asking for advice are beneficial during troubling times. Talking helps you look at the problem in a new or different way. Although not exactly talking, I find that chatting online with members of the SANE online forums is just as valuable. You find out that you are not alone and you may find that many other people share your feelings.
6. Learn to say no:
You’re worth it! Saying no helps establish healthy boundaries and enables others to be clear about what they can expect from you. I find that when you learn to say no you start to realise that the most important thing is being honest and respectful towards others. You don’t have to justify yourself when you say no. A simple “I just don’t feel like it” is more than enough.
For me medications are a must. They are not the only tool that’s available, but they must be taken as advised by your doctor. There have been times when the sedation caused by my medication and the euphoria of hypomania led me to stop taking it, but of course I became unwell again. Taking medication is one of the most important things a person can do to reduce the symptoms of mental illness.
8. Ensure Adequate Sleep:
There are hundreds of strategies to help you get to sleep. All you need to do is Google ‘Insomnia.’ In no particular order, the techniques I find helpful are: a warm, milky drink; resisting coffee after 4pm; going to bed at a regular time; having a pre-sleep routine; read something mild; engaging in mindfulness colouring; listening to tranquil music; and getting enough daytime exercise to feel tired at night. If nothing is working for you I suggest you get help before things get out of hand. This could involve calling a doctor.
9. Eat well (CW: dieting and weight)
Eating well is fundamental to good health and well-being. The benefits of a healthy diet include: helping you achieve a healthy weight; helping control or prevent diseases such as diabetes; and helping you have more energy. Plus it makes you feel good. I personally follow the guidelines from the Cancer Council’s Healthy Living After Cancer program. The main aims of this program are to: increase the amount of fruit, vegetables and whole grains you eat; reduce the amount of foods that are high in added sugars and in fat; limit the size of your portions; and make healthy food choices. The CSIRO make similar suggestions.
10. Celebrate Gifts
Each of us has our own unique gifts, strengths and talents that we bring to the world. For some of us, it can be difficult to see these within ourselves until someone we respect acknowledges what they see in us and only then do we realise our own potential. Enjoy the things that make you you!
If you live with a mental illness, and even if you don’t, I encourage you to keep believing in yourself, your hopes and dreams and don’t let anyone’s misconceptions stand in your way.