When you have a chronic condition, you are in charge of how you feel and how you deal with it. You could withdraw, stay home, and socialize less. Or, you can change the way you do things to gain confidence in your ability to manage symptoms.
Self-management of your chronic conditions starts with adopting skills to help you manage your illness. When you take control of your health, you break the cycle of bad habits and deal with symptoms and emotions that can keep you from enjoying life.
Self-management is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced. Keep the tips below in your self-management toolbox.
Living with a chronic condition can mean having to change habits you’ve had for years. Change is rarely easy, but it is worth the effort. It starts with you deciding you want to change and committing to being successful. It’s easier when you can change in stages – or series of plans – to get you there.
Start by setting your goal. A goal has to be something you want to do - if it isn’t, you will probably not be successful. You’ll also find more success with short-term goals that build on previous successes. Goals must be realistic, specific, and achievable. Examples of strong goals include:
- “I will lose five pounds in the next month.”
- “I will increase my physical activity by 10 minutes each week for the next three months.”
- “I will use distraction techniques every time I feel depressed.”
Your plan should also be action-specific. Know exactly how you will work toward your goal. Answer the questions: What? How much? When? and How Often?
- “To lose five pounds in the next month, I will: 1) exercise 20 minutes each day, 2) cut my meal portion sizes by 25%, and avoid French fries.”
- “To increase my physical activity by 10 minutes each week, I will walk 40 minutes on Monday, swim 25 minutes on Tuesday, and lift weights for 20 minutes on Wednesday.”
- “When I feel depressed, I will walk 10 minutes or play a game on my phone for 15 minutes or until I feel better.”
Commit your plan to paper (or your computer, phone, or tablet). Post it where you will see it every day. Set aside the same time each week to write your plan and evaluate your progress. Most importantly, give yourself permission to be imperfect. If you fall short of your plan, adjust it and keep going. Give yourself more time to achieve your goal and re-evaluate if your goal and action steps are attainable. Most importantly, reward and celebrate your successes.
Simple relaxation is a big part of self-managing your condition. It can help manage how often your symptoms get in the way. Relaxing means getting rid of tension in both your mind and your body. The goal is to turn off the outside world - at least for a little while - so that you can get some mental and physical rest. When you are relaxed, you will typically sleep better and have less stress and pain.
Try to do something each day to relax, but also set aside 15-20 minutes at least four days a week just to have the time to relax. Seriously, put it on your calendar and treat it as if it were a doctor's appointment. Pick a quiet place and time when you will not be disturbed.
Some simple things you can do to relax include:
- Read a book, listen to music, or watch a TV show or movie you enjoy.
- Try relaxing physical activities like walking, gardening, swimming, sports, or working out.
- Do some crafts, such as knitting, pottery, or woodworking, or indulge in a hobby, like collecting.
- Sing like nobody is listening and dance like nobody is watching.
- Enjoy nature: watch the water on a lake or stream or view the clouds rolling by.
- Do something nice and unexpected for someone else.
- Chat with a friend on the phone or online.
- Get a massage.
- Play with a pet.
Most importantly, stick with it. It may take three to four weeks of regular relaxation to start noticing benefits, but every little bit helps.
Your body needs food to function. While almost all foods provide energy for your body, the right mix of nutritious foods will keep it running well. As a general rule, you want to eat a diet that includes a variety of natural and colorful food – think fruits and vegetables and unprocessed low-fat meats and proteins.
Eating well when you are living with a chronic condition may require changes in your eating habits. Your body’s nutritional requirements can change with age and illness. Further, certain conditions and medications may change how food tastes or how well your body digests. It also can be hard to change eating habits that you’ve developed over the years, but it can be worth it.
Some reasons your eating habits may change with chronic conditions:
- Food doesn’t taste as good as it used to. Surgery, medications, illness, and certain treatments (such as oxygen) can change how food tastes. As a result, you may eat less or use more salt to make it taste better. Instead, use herbs and spices and fresh fruit juices and vinegars during and after cooking to boost flavor. Also, chew your food more – the longer it’s in your mouth, the more flavor you’ll get.
- You get tired when preparing meals. With lower energy levels, you may rely more on packaged, canned and frozen “convenience foods,” or fast food and take-out. These types of foods typically give you less good nutrients and more of the stuff you should avoid, such as fat, salt and calories. When you feel like cooking, try making multiple servings that you can store for later meals. Partially prepare meals when you have more energy, then quickly finish them later.
- Eating causes discomfort. People who have shortness of breath or who problems chewing and swallowing tend to eat less. Overeating can cause stomach problems such as indigestion, discomfort, or nausea. Try eating smaller and more frequent meals. Take time to relax before eating. Avoid foods that cause gas or bloating and add more foods that your body seems to digest well.
While you can take vitamin and mineral supplements, it’s better to get most of your nutrients from the foods you eat.
Communicating with Your Health Care Providers
The best medical care for you combines your doctor's medical expertise with your own knowledge, skills, and values. Effectively managing your chronic condition includes communicating well with your health care providers. They are experts about your condition, its symptoms, and its treatments and are there to help you.
However, it can sometimes be hard to communicate with them. Your own pride or lack of understanding about what is going on in your body can sometimes get in the way of telling your provider everything they need to know to help you. And, time constraints and complicated medical terms from your provider can make it hard for you to learn how to properly manage your condition and feel better.
You can help overcome these barriers when you “Take P.A.R.T.” in your own care:
- P = Prepare: Before a doctor’s appointment or procedure, make an agenda. Write down your concerns and questions. List the most important ones first. Share the list with your provider. Also prepare information you might be asked for, including the medications you take, your sleep patterns, what you've been eating, and other care providers you are seeing.
- A = Ask: Your health care provider is an expert; let him or her help you understand your condition by giving details and asking questions. Ask about your diagnosis, prognosis (how the condition will affect you over time), tests, treatments, and follow-up. Don’t be embarrassed to ask; it is your provider’s job to make sure you understand.
- R = Repeat: Another way to ensure you understand is to briefly repeat or restate what you hear your provider say. This is especially important for instructions such as when to take your medications or what side effects to expect. Take notes or bring someone with you to help you catch and remember the important details.
- T = Take action: Once you understand what your provider is recommending for you, it is up to you to make it happen. If you forget instructions or go off the plan, follow-up with your provider to get back on track. Also contact your provider if there is some reason you cannot follow their advice, such as cost, lack of help, etc. Your provider may be able to suggest a different treatment than you can follow.
Ultimately, you are the one who makes the decisions about your medical care. Your care providers have the tools and the responsibility to help you make the choices that lead to the best health outcomes for you.
Virtual and in-person, evidence-based health and wellness programs can link you to others who, like you, want to live a healthier life. Ohio's Area Agencies on Aging offer programs in or near your community that can help you learn strategies to manage chronic health conditions, deal with stress, set goals, talk with health care professionals, and much more.