“Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right,” sang Alanis Morissette back in 1995.
It’s a lyric that often pops into my head when I think back three years. It was a Thursday night and I had a sore throat. Little did I know that what seemed to be the beginnings of a cold was actually infectious mononucleosis, which occurs when one is infected with the Epstein-Barr virus. And little did I know that a year later – still dealing with full body pain, brain fog, complete fatigue, and regular sore throats – my doctors would diagnose me with chronic fatigue syndrome, also known variously as myalgic encephalomyelitis and post viral fatigue syndrome.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is a disease with no known cause or cure. It also disproportionately affects women, and more often than not, these women are ambitious, high-achievers. I count myself in that category. But here I was being told to rest, rest, and rest some more.
Post-diagnosis, I spent some time wondering why life had to give me this Alanis Morissette lyric. I would have happily accepted a black fly in my chardonnay or a traffic jam when I was already late. But after a few months had passed, I just did what most ambitious women are wont to do. I carved my own path forward and found ways to cope physically, mentally and emotionally.
How I live now is unrecognisable from three years ago. Even though I am still ill, life feels different, better almost, than it did pre-diagnosis. The small self-care activities I put in place to help me weather this storm have been significantly transformative – and I am 100% certain I will keep them up, long after I recover from CFS. Some seem obvious. Some feel weird (at first). But they all worked. So, without further ado, here is my complete list of the weird, wacky and wonderful self-care activities that have changed my life.
Okay, so you already know you need sleep and a good night’s sleep at that. But have you optimised your sleep hygiene lately? I have. Here’s what I did. First, I set up a strict sleep schedule. I go to bed around the same time each night and get up around the same time each morning. I aim to get about 7.5 hours of restful sleep in between. I don’t drink caffeinated drinks after 5pm each day. I try to avoid screens for the last half hour of my evening and instead read a book. I make sure my bedroom is pitch-black with no outside light. I have chosen nightwear and bed linen that ensures I am comfortable all night long – not too cold, not too warm, just right. And finally, if I struggle to drift off to sleep, I employ the 4-7-8 breathing technique which is a miracle worker.
Soon after my diagnosis, my doctor suggested I get a Fitbit to help me gradually increase the amount of exercise I could do. Before I became ill, I wasn’t really one for exercise. I would take a walk along the beach each day, but that was about it. In the first few weeks of wearing the Fitbit, I couldn’t even manage to do 250 steps per hour, no matter how much it buzzed on my wrist. I could do about 800 steps a day before I exacerbated my symptoms. Trust me, 800 steps aren’t much. But every few weeks, I tried to increase my goal, using the Fitbit as a guide. Now, I can do around 7,500 steps a day without any ill effect, so I am getting closer to the recommended 10,000 daily steps for healthy adults.
I’ve always struggled with staying hydrated. I can honestly (and sadly) say there are probably weeks that have passed by where I haven’t downed a glass of plain water. One of the first self-care activities I instituted was to drink more water. Whenever my Fitbit buzzed at me to get up and do 250 steps, I would finish off by taking a few gulps of water. Soon, I was drinking multiple glasses through the day, and now I really notice the difference if I forget to hydrate.
Yoga and meditation
Okay, so life won’t change overnight when you begin a yoga or meditation practice, but you will feel the impact pretty quickly. Before I became ill, I had tinkered with yoga, mostly for the physical benefits. And while those physical benefits should not be understated, I turned to it post-diagnosis for its stress-busting powers. Whether I was angry at the universe for my chronic illness or feeling desperately helpless about how to move forward, I could do some quick yoga stretches and calm myself down. After a few months, I started doing 10 minutes of meditation immediately following every yoga session, which compounded the effects. I use Yoga Studio alongside Simple Habit, but I’ve also tried the Headspace.
Most afternoons, I make a cup of green tea and eat 2-3 squares of organic dark chocolate. Studies have shown that it can increase your alertness and reduce inflammation, among other health benefits. To that, I say: what could possibly be better than a guilt-free treat?
When I was a teenager, I kept a diary of sorts, although I never really got into the habit of writing about my feelings. Then, last year, I kept stumbling across articles about how keeping a gratitude journal can elevate your happiness. I started out small, writing only on Sundays. I would write down something I was grateful for and why I was grateful for it. After a couple of months, I decided to try keeping a daily journal. Mostly, I have found it’s a great way for me to work through anxiety or issues that keep popping into my head. If I’m lucky, I can write and write about the issue, then expel it from my mind. At the very least, journalling helps me clarify my thoughts and lets me track my goals, my happiness, and my progress, all in one place.
Somewhere along the way, I read that smiling at yourself in the mirror can boost your immunity and reduce stress. Weird, but true. So, every morning, I would face myself in the mirror break out the cheesiest grin I could muster. It felt a bit ridiculous, to begin with, but after a few weeks, it does begin to feel as though someone is smiling back at you, which feels nice. I also say an affirmation out loud to myself, while smiling. It’s usually something simple, such as “you’re strong” or “you’re doing okay,” but it helps me feel motivated to get through the day.
It turns out that whoever said laughter is the best medicine was a certifiable genius. Studies have found that laughing can do everything from boost the immune system to reduce stress to ease pain. So, whenever I feel anxious or down, I head straight over to YouTube. Yes, YouTube. There, I watch videos guaranteed to make me laugh. I’ve watched this uncut video of Bradley Cooper and Jimmy Fallon having a laughing attack numerous times. I watch funny pranks. Cute puppies. Whatever works. By the time I’m done, my mood has always lifted.
If you’ve ever struggled with switching off, may I direct you towards a particularly indulgent self-care activity: baths. Baths are amazing. I fill the tub with hot water and half a cup of Epsom salts. Sometimes I light a candle, but more often than not I just step right in and sink downwards until the water is up to my chin. I avoid extracurricular bathing activities such as reading or listening to podcasts and I try to completely zone/zen out. Yes, baths are amazing. But don’t just take my word for it. Glossier founder Emily Weiss is also a big fan.
Within the first 30 minutes of my day – post-shower, pre-coffee – you’ll find me outside, bathing in the morning light. I do this rain, hail or shine. The purpose of this five-minute activity is to help calibrate my body’s internal “circadian” clock. Apparently, this is very cavewoman of me. It’s also when I like to quickly check my emails and the news, which is not so cavewoman of me.
When you’re super busy and struggling to find any free time for yourself, it’s pretty easy to forego hanging out with your friends and family. But don’t! You need to make time to socialise because studies have found that people with an active social life enjoy better physical and mental health. If you can’t find time even for a quick coffee with your BFF, a phone call will do. It’s about connecting with your community and reaping the benefits that that sows.
When you live with a chronic illness, it can feel as though life is passing you by. Surprisingly, it inspires me to live vicariously through other people’s tales of adventure and ambition. When I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I could feel myself walking along the Pacific Crest Trail. When I listened to Sara Blakely talk about how she built Spanx and Jenn Hyman talk about launching Rent the Runway (on Guy Raz’s How I Built This podcast), I was energised by their hustle. I have a long list of books and podcasts at the ready, ensuring I’m never short of inspiration.
May I have this dance? No, seriously. If you have five minutes to spare, press play on your favourite fast-paced song and channel your inner Beyoncé. It’s a quick and easy way to move your body, put your inhibitions aside, burn some calories, and keep your brain sharp (according to science). But even better, it’s the sort of self-care activity that will take you away to another place, even if you’re just getting down in the comfort of your apartment. I don’t personally have the energy to spend more than a few minutes on this, but luckily, that’s all it takes.
What is your favourite self-care activity? Share with us on Twitter @Stylish365.