- Self-care can help you manage stress, lower your own risk of illness, and increase your energy.
- Small actions of self-care like journaling and a gratitude list can make a difference to your overall well-being.
- Be kind to yourself, and set boundaries when necessary so that you can manage your self-care.
- If possible, exercise, good sleep, and therapy are excellent avenues of self-care.
What does self-care mean?
In our daily lives, we have enough reasons for stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Adding a loved one’s cardiac arrest and hospitalization can throw you into even more unknown depths, where you are not only in shock but also trying to process what happened. This may take a huge toll on your mental health and cause you to feel exhausted all the time. According to the National Institutes of Health, self-care can help you manage stress, lower your own risk of heart issues, and increase your energy to manage these additional responsibilities. When illness comes to a loved one, it’s difficult to create the time and space to care for yourself. However, it is so important to do that, or else you, in turn, may get ill.
Self-care means creating time and space to take care of yourself. Self-care is not being selfish. You cannot give to others if you do not give to yourself. As co-survivors you might hear, “Make sure to take care of yourself,” but how do you actually do that? Stress reduction is key for longevity and your continued holistic health and well-being as a co-survivor.
Small things can make a big difference
Physical: Check in with your body. If you can, get out of your chair and stand up. Move your body. Take a few minutes to take some calming breaths. Make sure the OUT breath is longer than the IN breath.
Emotional: Journaling can be extremely helpful. Write down everything you are feeling – even if it’s all bad. This will get it out of your head and onto paper. It can just be a stream of consciousness account of what you are thinking of at the moment. Research has shown that journaling or written exposure therapy can improve anxiety and posttraumatic stress symptoms among war veterans.
In addition, make a gratitude list of 5 things you are grateful for. Gratitude can bring you into the present moment quickly.
Health behaviors: Make sure you are eating well and drinking enough water. Try to get enough sleep. Keep up with personal hygiene. Say no to illicit substances, smoking, and excessive alcohol intake. These are all basics of caring for yourself so you can navigate a very challenging situation.
Co-survivor insight: “When I stay up too late or neglect to eat or go for walks, I am much more tired and frustrated. If I want to be my best to care for my survivor, I need to be deliberate about my self-care. It is like a basic recipe. The correct steps and ingredients for me to be a good caregiver [require] me to get the basic ingredients that make me well. And for me, it’s three square meals, at least seven hours of sleep, and going for my walks. And at least one weekend a month to visit my family. That’s my personal recipe.”
Leaving the hospital
People often underestimate how stressful a hospital environment can be. Listening to monitors and machines supporting your loved one can create discomfort. Seeing your loved one in an ill state can cause discomfort. Make sure you are spending time outside your loved one’s hospital room. And when you leave the hospital, truly leave the hospital. Unplug from your phone, and avoid spending this little time you have away from the hospital making phone calls to share your loved one’s condition with extended families or endlessly researching it. There are online applications for helping you unplug. Take a moment to seek out something that you need to do for yourself or that you truly enjoy.
Make a care package for yourself
What do you, as a hospital visitor, need? Take time to pack a care package for yourself. Here’s a checklist of things to pack for the hospital:
- Your ID and your loved one’s ID and wallet, if they were not transported with them
- Any important insurance or other medical information about your loved one that may be helpful to clinicians (list of patient’s current medications and dosage, other medical history, etc.)
- Loose change for vending machines and a credit/debit card
- Your phone and chargers (cables and/or battery pack charger, earphones, headset)
- Sweater or sweatshirt, as hospitals can be chilly
- Notebook to take notes when doctors make rounds or for your own journaling
- Reading material or spiritual resources (special prayers, rosary, etc.) that may bring you comfort
- Personal care items for yourself (toothbrush, toothpaste, contact lens solutions, glasses, slipper socks, medications, comb or brush, makeup, hand towel or towelettes to freshen up, sleep mask if you need to nap in a waiting area, etc.)
- Change of clothes in case you stay overnight (if allowed)
- Familiar items for your loved one that could bring them comfort (e.g., photos of family members, their phone, headphones, charger, eyeglasses, housecoat or slippers, iPad)
Change how you work
Not everyone can stop working or take time away. But if you can, explore taking a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act or request a formalized flexible work arrangement.
In our experience, sleep habits – both in terms of the number of hours slept and quality – are affected in co-survivors who have millions of thoughts and things to do when they lie down after a long day. Sleep has recently been added by the American Heart Association as an additional health behavior that could affect heart and brain health. It also affects our diet and exercise capacity. It’s important that you pay attention to your sleep hygiene and create a routine. Talk to your primary care doctors, and they can suggest some over-the-counter medications if online sleep applications or a basic sleep routine are not helping you get a good night’s sleep.
Continue with your normal exercise routine, or find something new. Want to try something gentle? There are many online resources for low-intensity exercise classes and yoga.
Be kind to yourself
Stop feeling guilty. You are doing the absolute best that you can. Say “No, not right now” to things that you can’t manage at the moment. If you want or need to cry, then cry.
If there are people, places, or things that prevent your ability to take care of yourself, then set boundaries. Boundaries help us take care of ourselves. Read here about setting healthy boundaries from Positive Psychology.
Talk therapy with a counselor or psychologist can be a great help in these situations. You can often talk to therapists and have sessions over the phone (even from the hospital!). If you don’t have a therapist you see on a regular basis, there are some online counseling choices. New York City has a program called NYC WELL that offers free confidential counseling and mental health support. Additionally, some employers provide talk therapy for their employees through an Employee Assistance Program. Even if it’s just short-term therapy, it can be a space to talk, cry, and get your feelings out.
Connect with peer support groups
Sometimes it’s beneficial to connect with others who are or have been in your shoes. There is a peer support group on Facebook that we recommend if you are looking to join one.
Thank you to our contributors
Alessandra Dinin & Cindy Marchionda
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