How self-care (the right kind) can help you

By Kerrie Smyres

Between social media posts about spa days and advertising from the $450 billion wellness industry, it can be tempting to dismiss self-care as expensive gluttony. Yet when you have a chronic illness like migraine, self-care is a necessity rather than a treat. Instead of lavish pampering, self-care, when you’re sick, tends toward practical, routine necessity. (Though everyone could use an indulgence from time to time!)

If self-care isn’t getting massages and facials while lounging on the beach in Hawaii, then what is it? Self-care is the simple act of listening to and attending to your needs in a way that you find restorative. Even the smallest acts can be self-care. If you love turning down the sheets on a neatly made bed, then making your bed every day is a form of self-care. If you crave a particular brand of coffee and it’s in your budget, then making a cup for yourself each day also qualifies.

Self-care doesn’t have to cost any money and it doesn’t have to take much time. The amount of time you spend is up to you—it can be taking an extra two minutes to lie in bed after your alarm goes off to gear yourself up for the day, a 10-minute phone call to a friend, a daylong hike, or anything in-between.

If you’re new to self-care and eager to get started, it’s tempting to jump in and try a variety of approaches all at once. That’s a great way to get burned out on self-care and decide it’s more work than it’s worth! You also won’t know which practice is helping you most. Instead, try one small thing to start. Choose something that’s both meaningful to you and manageable given your time constraints.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you find a mode of self-care that will be most comforting for you:

What’s your favorite part of the day? Identify the things you already do often and love, then make them a regular part of your day. By creating a ritual around an activity, you can transform it from mundane to self-care. This can be as simple as changing into your favorite pajamas early each evening or listening to your favorite song while stuck in traffic.

What is something you get to do occasionally that makes you feel restored? If coloring makes you smile, you can carve out a few minutes every day to color. Or if being in nature is a necessity for you, see if there’s a spot in your yard or a nearby park that you can spend some time in regularly.

You may have things you love to do that don’t seem, at first, like they could become part of your everyday life. Those might just need a creative solution. For example, you may love dancing to live music, but avoid concerts because they are full of triggers. Can you get your fix by dancing in your living room?

What’s something you did as a kid that you’d love to do again? Climbing a tree, playing with Play-Doh, or riding a bike can all be forms of self-care. You might try one of those again and love it so much that you incorporate it into your life on a regular basis, or you might do it once and decide it’s not something you want to do again. Even trying novel activities is, in itself, a form of self-care. (And it’s good for your brain!)

What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but never tried? If you’ve wanted to try yoga, you can take a class or just learn a few stretches to do at home. (Check out YogaWithAdriene on YouTube.) You can pick up a new language in small increments through a free app like DuoLingo or Memrise, which stretches your brain and doesn’t take too much time each day. Maybe you dream of writing a book; while that kind of project could be more exhausting than it is relaxing, you can still flex your writing muscles by journaling for 10 minutes a day.

If you decide that trying something new is how you want to incorporate self-care, try to keep it simple to start—if getting yourself to weekly harp lessons and finding the time to practice is more stressful than it is relaxing, then it’s unlikely to feel like self-care.

What’s a migraine lifestyle change that you’d like to adopt? Self-care can also encompass all those things you know you should do to manage migraine, but may not prioritize, like getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising. If you’re new to self-care, consider starting with a change that’s likely to have a positive impact on your life beyond migraine. You want self-care to be relaxing, not a chore that feels like drudgery in service of migraine.

Self-care is as individual as you are. It need not be elaborate or time-consuming, it just needs to be something that helps you find comfort and relaxation. And remember, if it’s not working, give something new a try!

Kerrie Smyres is a writer and patient advocate who has had chronic migraine for 30+ years. She is the founder of The Daily Headache and is a contributor. Kerrie is passionate about “translating” medical research into language patients can understand easily and writing candidly about life with chronic illness.