Self-care can take many different forms

Pandemic highlights need to do things for one's self to maintain good mental health

Series: Beyond COVID | Story 7

We've all heard the flight attendant's speech: In the event the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks drop, secure your own mask before helping others.

The directions might sound counterintuitive to those inclined to first tend to those in need of assistance. But if you don't take care of yourself, there's no way you'll be able to care for others.

In the airplane example the instructions are clear and easy to follow. In many other situations in life, determining how to take care of yourself is not as easy. And the COVID-19 pandemic certainly has added its own complications.

In this story, a mental health professional, a volunteer and a cancer survivor share their insights on how each of us can do a better job of caring for ourselves, of putting on our own oxygen mask. Only then will we be available as effective supports for others.

Simple steps to self-care

For some, the coronavirus pandemic carried with it a silver lining - an opportunity to hit the reset button, to examine life choices and priorities and make changes to better align the two.

For others, the worry and fear related to COVID-19 simply made everything worse.

"I would say that COVID, I think it's had a negative effect on everybody. On people who are predominantly more anxious, it made them even more anxious," said Elise Matthei, supervisor of AdventHealth's adult and adolescent mental health day hospital programs. "I can think of several patients who at times due to their anxiety maybe have trouble leaving the house. I would say COVID has made that 100-percent worse.

"I think some of the adaptations that society has set up, like the home delivery for groceries or Uber Eats, it's made it very easy if you're an anxious person not to leave the house."

The same holds true for people who have depression and struggle with finding motivation, she noted.

"With COVID, if you're stuck at home, then you're just going to be stuck at home. It's really going to make that worse," she said.

The coping strategies the day program patients learn can be practiced by others as well, Matthei said. A recent initiative provided journals for patients, who were invited to write a daily entry to help develop mindfulness.

"A lot of it is looking at reframing their thoughts, so if they have more of a pessimistic thought process or more of a negative thought process, how do you change those thoughts? I think that's something that can be very easily done at home," she said.

One suggestion for shifting internal thoughts is to create a daily gratitude list.

"It can be as simple as writing down one thing a day and continuing that list," she said.

Another strategy for those who are comfortable doing so is to schedule time to spend with others.

"A big thing is to make plans and to have something to look forward to, whether it's meeting friends out at a restaurant or going for a walk at night with a neighbor or something like that," she said.

The plans don't have to be elaborate or expensive. The most important thing is making a connection, Matthei said.

Volunteering also can be an opportunity to connect with others, either through contacting a nonprofit agency that needs help or even cutting the grass for a neighbor.

People who wonder if they need additional help with anxiety or depression should talk to their primary care physician or a trusted friend, Matthei advised. And they should recognize that feeling some anxiety before visiting a therapist is normal.

"I think it's understandable to be anxious to walk into that, but a therapist isn't going to be frustrated with you for any of those feelings," Matthei said. "As a social worker, I appreciate those feelings. If somebody wasn't anxious or they weren't scared or they weren't worried, I would be anxious for them."

The Living Room in La Grange is a peer-run community crisis program that provides mental health support. The free drop-in center is a comfortable, nonclinical space that offers an alternative to a hospital emergency room.

"If you're struggling and you don't have somebody to chat with, that would be something that would be really crucial," Matthei said.

The Crisis Text Line at 741741 is another resource that is available 24/7 to people in crisis who need to talk to someone.

Paying attention to physical health also is important, Matthei said.

"Then you're looking at the emotional side of things, the spiritual side of things and the social side of things," she said. "Really that whole person care is really important."

Giving is its own reward

Longtime volunteer Susann Oakum of Hinsdale found herself with time on her hands when the pandemic hit.

So when she noticed an ad in the paper indicating HCS Family Services needed volunteers, she and her husband, Rob, decided to give it a try.

"The people were so welcoming and so friendly," she said. "We left feeling like, 'Oh my gosh, if we weren't there, how would these people have gotten fed?' We came back the next week and the next week and we just became regular volunteers."

Oakum, who worked in a challenging job with international travel before she decided to stay home to raise her three children, filled her time with volunteering while they were in school. She's done everything from serve as president of the PTO at The Lane and Clarendon Hills Middle School to sit on the board of Easter Seals and plan major fundraising events. The hands-on work she does at HCS offers different types of rewards.

On the most basic level, it has a beginning and an end and occupies her mind.

"It's a defined time period and you do lose yourself in it," she said. "You concentrate on that for two hours and your find yourself not spiraling into a hundred other (thoughts of), 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, what's going to happen, what's going to happen?' "

As an intake volunteer, she also has the opportunity to get to know a bit about the neighbors HCS is feeding. And their stories inspire her.

"The resilience that they show is amazing," she said. "A lot of the time, it's not the stereotypical person that is in line. You think, one wrong turn or one unexpected challenge and that could be me."

The pandemic dramatically increased the need for food as industries shut down and people lost their jobs. The first Wednesday she and Rob volunteered, 160 families visited the HCS food pantry at Anne M. Jeans School in Willowbrook. Pre-COVID the pantry served about 90 families, she said.

Oakum recognizes the job could be draining if it were full-time.

"I only have to make these people feel good for my 30 seconds of interaction or my two minutes of interaction," she said. "I do go home with a renewed sense of hope and positivity, and I feel really good and that's what keeps you coming back. You feel good when you leave."

Oakum has witnessed the impact volunteering can have when she invited her mom, Judith Kropid, to help her with HCS' 85th birthday party. Her mom recently moved back to Hinsdale from Las Vegas after two years of extensive COVID precautions.

"She just blossomed," Oakum said. "It felt normal to her. She felt like she was doing something, like her old life was coming back."

Oakum appreciates the variety of people she meets volunteering and learning about their different perspectives on the world.

"It's all sorts of different people. It's not just your friends where you probably have similar values and similar backgrounds and everything," she said. "When you volunteer you are with people who are different than you and it's good - especially during the pandemic."

Although some things are getting back to normal, many of the patterns people took for granted before COVID have been disrupted and might never return, Oakum said.

"There's no certainty to anything, so I think you find yourself adrift," she said. "You need something like volunteering that keeps you grounded and gives you certainty. You know what you are going to be doing."

Perhaps the biggest reward is when a neighbor visiting the food pantry brings Oakum a small gift, like an envelope of hard candy or a chocolate Easter bunny.

"I think that's the whole thing - everyone wants to give. It makes you feel good to give," Oakum said.

And it's wonderful to receive.

"One positive interaction makes you feel good."

Cancer prompts self-care

When Diane Tyrrell came to Wellness House for the first time in the summer of 2019, she had known about her cancer for less than a year and did not have a clear picture of her future.

"At that point, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to walk again without a walker," Tyrrell said. "I didn't know what my life was going to look like.

"I was in a vulnerable state," she added, noting that her brother and sister had been taking her to medical appointments or to pick up groceries.

"I remember coming in the door," she continued. "I was the only one in a walker, but I was welcomed by the group. I was very welcomed by the group."

Tyrrell had spent the months prior to arriving at Wellness House working to recover physically and emotionally from an unexpected cancer diagnosis in December of 2018 that started with a backache and left her in a wheelchair. She was at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago when a nurse first mentioned Wellness House to her.

"I could really use some help in terms of being with other people," she recalled thinking. "Let's see what they have at the Wellness House."

She discovered more than she ever expected, including honest exchanges among support group members about everything from treatments they were receiving to how cancer had impacted their relationships with relatives and friends. She admitted to feeling some apprehension before she attended her first meeting but knew after that she wanted to return.

"I wanted to come back and get to know everyone," she said. "That was the key. You're actually getting to know people, and I think that's everything, actually."

Tyrrell made friends in those support groups that she continues to see. She also was able to talk with and listen to people who knew exactly what she was going through.

"Each of us has faced that horrible diagnoses that carries with it a threat of death. It's sobering," she said.

Three and a half years after her diagnoses, Tyrrell continues to receive some treatments, and so she still is able to attend exercise classes at Wellness House. The individual attention she has received has helped her develop greater strength, flexibility, coordination and balance, she said.

"All of it has benefited me," she said. "I feel like I should write them a huge check."

She said she's fortunate she had the chance to attend programs in person at Wellness House for several months before COVID-19 shut programs down.

"I think exercising is actually a good one for Zoom, and you're moving and you're not sitting, stuck looking at a little screen," she said.

She attended support groups via Zoom as well, expressing admiration for the courage of those who attended their first support group meeting online.

A Meaning Centered Psychotherapy for Cancer Patients workshop she attended asked her to examine the things in her life that provide meaning. As a result, she decided to return to writing short stories and now participates in a writers group through her library. She has also enjoyed participating in sessions on Reike, water color painting and Japanese forest bathing.

Wellness House reminds her of the folks in mission control who offered support to the astronauts in "Apollo 13."

"They're going to land on the moon, they think, and then this terrible thing goes wrong. All of a sudden, they need a lot of help from people on the ground. That's what it was like," she said. "The people on the ground have all these resources and knowledge and they are going to share it with me and I am going to land safely."

Tyrrell said her cancer journey has led to a greater enjoyment of life. But it doesn't mean every day is a good one.

"Really, I'm just like everybody else," she said. "I have to work at my ups and downs."

Author Bio

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean