Journey To Self-Care: Behavior And Chronic Illness

Medically Reviewed by Beth Hendrickson, RN

A woman learning how to take care of herself with chronic illness

The health we have, or can have, is a result of many interrelated factors. Some factors we cannot control, such as genetics, past illness, and our history of eating and activity. However, other factors are clearly our responsibility and within our reach to control, such as how we eat and exercise from this moment on, and how we view the life we live in. When we understand and choose to improve our health through managing those factors within our control, we begin a journey that can change both our health and the way we view it.

The journey to being in the practice of self-care is most effective when we define our values, learn new skills, and internalize behaviors and attitudes that support our best health. Beginning with the end in mind, results are easy to specify, such as weight loss, feel better, fewer sick days, reduce stress, and be healthier for example. Wanting to be healthier is merely the first step, though. Following identification of results, we must examine our values and look for deeper motivations behind our desire for better health. Wanting to lose weight in order to be more attractive to the opposite sex may seem motivating enough at first. However, as time goes on, it's not likely to be enough of a reason to overcome all the challenges of weight loss and diet change. Valuing a lifestyle that includes favorite activities, sufficient daily energy, and time with family and friends is a much more meaningful and solid foundation for making and persisting in the daily changes that lead to weight loss and other health results.

As skills are learned and values reinforced, behaviors and attitudes become more familiar and comfortable. Instead of practicing the behaviors, which takes concentration and purposeful action, we begin living the behaviors. They come more naturally as our competence increases and our confidence grows as we realize success. For example, consistently effort at new ways of food preparation and meal planning become easier with practice. In diabetes, for example, seeing improvements in blood sugar levels increase our confidence in our ability to manage our eating healthfully, adding to our desire and motivation to continue the practice.

While we occasionally experience setback in our self-care journey, it is a lifetime journey, so must always refine and look for ways to move forward. Monitoring and tracking our behaviors and attitudes can keep us action-oriented and on the lookout for possibilities for change. Monitoring opens our eyes to behaviors or patterns that have produced positive results, so that we can build more successes. Monitoring also identifies those behaviors that perpetuate negative results, offering us the opportunity to make improvements.

Tracking can take place in many more areas of our lifestyle than seem obvious. For example, with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or any GI problem, it makes sense to keep a food journal. Additionally, keeping track of stress level and stressors provides important clues to influences on intestinal reactions. That information can be used to make changes that lessen the negative reaction to stress. Perhaps less obvious, but no less important to track and evaluate are sleeping habits, physical activity, and social and personal habits. Inadequate or restless sleep, especially over time can influence one's ability to withstand stress. Migraines, for example, may be more easily triggered by other factors when we aren't well-rested. Our emotions, immune system, physical responses and decision-making abilities are primed for breakdowns when one or more areas of our life are stressed. Like finding a chink in the armor of a dragon, unrecognized or undetected chinks in our self-care can predispose us to system breakdowns, that can result in worsening of symptoms and disease.

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Bonnie Beardsley is a Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist in private practice.

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