When many people think of “self-care” they picture a soothing bubble bath or a pampering pedicure. But taking good care of yourself takes many forms, especially when you’re managing a chronic illness like diabetes. For PWDs, self-care might include checking your blood sugar and making yourself a healthy snack, but it also means doing things for your mental and emotional health—and even having a little fun. “It can be something as basic as a massage, some yoga, reading a book, listening to your favourite songs or more. Not only can nurturing yourself in all these ways result in lower heart disease risk and better glucose management, but it can also boost energy and help you sleep better, thus leading to more fulfilling relationships,” says Brooke Baker, RN, CDE, a diabetes nurse specialist.
Still, no matter how good it is for us or how good it feels, self-care can be hard. Just ask anyone who has set a New Year’s resolution... and given it up after a few weeks or months. But that doesn’t have to be you. In fact, you don’t need any resolutions or big goals to practice self-care. Taking a few minutes of time for yourself—a spontaneous 15-minute walk or a few minutes of deep breathing to de-stress before a meeting—is a great start. It will make you much more successful in the long run. “When we take time to be kind to ourselves, it can make the self- care and diabetes tasks feel easier to complete,” adds Baker. However, even the kindest among us often aren’t that good at self-compassion. If you need some encouragement, follow these three steps to build your own sustainable self-care plan.
MAKE YOURSELF A PRIORITY
Baker says that a huge number of people have a hard time prioritising their own wellness. “We’re raised to put our families first and not ourselves,” she explains. “Many people I have seen in my practice have a new Type 2 diagnosis after caring for a dying parent, for example. They’ve focused all their time and energy on the loved one and have spent no time caring for themselves. They become more sedentary, experience a lot of stress and grief, and suddenly they are the patient. It’s overwhelming.” If you’re not kind to yourself, she says, “then your health is at risk and you won’t be able to take care of anyone.”
If you find yourself still struggling with the idea that self-care is not selfish, try this quick exercise: Curl your hands into fists and hold them about chest-high in front of you. Your left fist represents you, and the right one represents other people. They’re equal—this is what it looks like when you honour yourself as just as important as everyone else.
Now, move your left fist down a few inches, so it’s lower than your right. That’s you ignoring your needs in favour of what everyone else wants. So out of balance! Now level out your fists again and remind yourself: It’s not selfish to take care of yourself, it’s just fair.
IDENTIFY YOUR NEEDS— AND YOUR CHALLENGES
There’s a long list of self-care behaviours that have been shown to help people manage their diabetes and live happier lives, including eating healthy, nutritious foods, getting regular physical activity, monitoring blood sugars, taking medications, managing stress, and developing healthy coping and problem-solving skills. But you don’t need to tackle these all at once! Focus on what you need most, and make a plan to overcome any barriers that may stand in your way, suggests Mark Peyrot, Ph.D. in behavioural diabetes and a sociologist.
To help you choose where to focus, think about an area in your life where you know a small change could benefit you. Say you notice that you are constantly picking up takeout for dinner on the way home from work, and you want to cook more instead. Next, identify the challenge in this situation as specifically as you can, and brainstorm ways to overcome it. For example, rather than saying “I eat out too much,” reframe with details, like “I’m often too busy or stressed at night to make time to cook.”
How might you solve that issue? Perhaps divide cooking responsibilities with your partner so you only need to plan and cook every other night. Or try cooking extra and freezing leftovers, so you have premade meals which you can reheat on your busiest days. And, remember, aim for a little fun! “Stress relief and relaxation are part of caring for yourself and your diabetes,” says Peyrot. “Relaxation and emotional well-being are good in every way possible for this condition.” In other words, if you find yourself with very little time to do the activities you love—reading, fishing, being with friends—solving that self-care problem is just as important as making time for exercise or wholesome meals.
MAKE SPACE IN YOUR SCHEDULE
Self-care takes work and planning, sure—but it doesn’t have to take up as much of your time as you may think, suggests Fletcher. Start by looking for small windows of time in your day. “Instead of saying you’ll exercise for an hour straight, look for the 5, 10, or 15-minute opportunities you can fit in around other things.” And look for shortcuts whenever and wherever you can find them. When you put leftovers away after dinner, for example, pack them directly into a container you can take to work the next day for lunch. Or set aside a couple of hours each Sunday to sauté vegetables and cook proteins so nutritious food is available to warm up later in the week.
Prioritising is a key strategy for making room for self-care in your life. Sometimes self-care is as simple as saying no to others, in order to make time for yourself. It’s tough to put yourself first when those you love (or work for) need a lot of your time and energy. Learning to say no to requests that get in the way of your own wellness can help keep you on track with your self-care goals.
Lastly, don’t hesitate to ask for help—from friends, family members, and even (to some extent) co-workers. Letting people know you’re struggling is hard to do, but opening up might deepen relationships and lead to creative solutions you never would’ve considered on your own. Putting in the time and effort to create a self-care plan that’s sustainable for the long haul is worth it. “A chronic illness never stops,” says Baker. “I remind my patients that diabetes is a marathon, not a sprint,” and it’s self-care that can keep you going."