A little while back I wrote an entry about self-care that included things like aromatherapy, healing touch, breathing, getting a hobby, etc. Since then, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon something that should’ve landed on that list, had I known about it at the time.
We can all agree that it’s very important for Heart Parents – and anyone really – to practice kindness, empathy, and compassion towards others, right? These are all very important things to do so that we can make the world a better place. The reality, though, is that sometimes kindness, empathy, and compassion can seem a little finite. If you picture it like a gas tank in your body, over time you’ll end up on E and all burned out. But if you work on keeping that tank full, you don’t have to worry so much about that burnout.
This begins with you. It’s not about loving harder or giving more hugs or high-fives. It’s not about digging deeper for more empathy. It’s about taking a long, hard look in the mirror and realizing that often the person that needs kindness from you is….you. You see, there’s only so much of yourself you can give before you have nothing left, no matter how helpful you want to be. And when that happens, you will pay the price physically and mentally.
A little while back I was able to learn a little bit about this concept of compassion fatigue, which is a by-product of being compassionate. It doesn’t make you weird, it just means you are actually compassionate, but you’ve work it out like a muscle that you exercise too hard. You need to rest, you need to recuperate to get that strength back. One of the biggest things I’ve taken away from this is that it’s important for us – whether you are a Heart Parent, a nurse, a doctor, etc. – to practice kindness towards ourselves. So many of us give but never give to ourselves. So what does this all mean?
Try to do something nice for yourself…maybe not everyday, but every few days. I’m not saying you need to run off to the beach or buy a sports care on the reg (but if you do go to the beach, bring me along yes?). These kind acts are simpler: getting outside for some fresh air, going for a bike ride, doing something that makes you smile or laugh. Take a moment of your day to re-fill your compassion reserves. For me, my nice thing that I do for myself is coffee. When it comes to coffee, I’m a little like this:
I love my coffee…a lot. I’m not the person who drinks excessive amounts of it, just 1 or 2 cups a day really…but everyone who knows me knows it’s like my one big vice (if you could even call it that…I mean, c’mon son). Anyhow, what I started doing some nights is once I put all the kids to bed, I come downstairs and make myself a cup of coffee. Just one. Then I sit on the couch and I drink my coffee and I just…exist. Sometimes I watch a baseball game, sometimes I stare off into space, sometimes I look for funny memes online, sometimes I have deep thoughts (“I swear DJ Snake’s new song is just a slowed-down version of his last one”). It doesn’t matter what I have to accomplish before the night is done, it doesn’t matter how badly the kids have utterly destroyed our house, doesn’t matter how high the pile of dishes are. For those few moments I give myself the gift of coffee and the chance to be and the chance to breathe. It doesn’t take long, but I find it to be an incredibly powerful and centering moment. I usually feel quite refreshed and energized and I finish all the things I need to do that evening. I find myself sometimes really looking forward to my small moment with coffee. Like if I am wiped out from a busy day at work or my kids are being absolute hellions…it’s as if I say to myself, “I just need to get to the coffee.”
This doesn’t cost me a ton of money, it doesn’t take a lot of effort, and it’s not hard to do. What is challenging is finding that way to be kind to yourself. This is also not selfishness…it’s survival. Don’t let your kindness be something that pulls you away from your family or your work or other responsibilities (“The HLHS Dad said to be nice to myself, so I’m quitting my job and moving to Palau for 6 months!” NO.). Find those small things that just make you happy, then find ways to use them to rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit. You’re going to find that this is keeping you from absolutely losing your mind.
So today, going forward, I want you to never forget the man in the mirror: be kind to him as he is kind to others.
I’ve been where you are…the glazed look in your eyes, the nearly zombie-like foot shuffle, the Lord-knows-how-old crust on your t-shirt. You’re the dad who is on day 4 in the hospital after your child’s most recent heart surgery. I see you standing in the cafeteria, meal ticket in hand thinking, “If I eat another chicken salad sub, I’m gonna lose my freakin’ mind.” Dude, I’ve been you. Now that I work at a hospital, I see you guys all the time…I call these parents “ghosts upon the earth,” since you get to this crazy place where you exist but you kinda don’t…you’re just floating through the motions until you get to safely take your child home and it’s like someone gave your body back to you at the front door. Well guys, this post is for you…whether you’re shuffling through the hospital or doing it at home. I know this life is a challenging one but we have to remember to take care of ourselves! Obviously our little heart warriors get a lot of attention…they need that attention. There’s meds to be given, tube feeds to administer, appointments to attend, and futures to fret over. The reality, though, is we’re killing ourselves with stress.
There’s been a big shift in healthcare towards more holistic styles of healing – or integrative therapies, as they’re sometimes called. But before you write me off as some kind of hippie, please hear me out. Mainstream healthcare is slowly getting on board with the idea that some of these more non-traditional therapies can actually be very helpful in the big picture. To be honest with you, they weren’t anything I ever put much thought to until about the last year or so. My job has exposed me to several of these therapies and I have to say they’re a great thing for the healthcare system and for us as heart parents. So here’s a few:
Is it massage? Is it chiropractics? Is it weird? Nah. To be honest with you, I am far from being an expert in healing touch because I don’t completely understand it.
According to the Healing Touch Program website, “Healing Touch is an energy therapy in which practitioners consciously use their hands in a heart-centered and intentional way to support and facilitate physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Healing Touch is a biofield (magnetic field around the body) therapy that is an energy-based approach to health and healing.”
Now before you get all like “That’s some voodoo, bruh!” Hear me out. I’ve tried healing touch twice and whether or not the results were all in my head, I have to say it worked splendidly. We recently had some healing touch practitioners at work and I sat down for a 10-minute “centering exercise” as they called it. Basically I saw in a chair and the practitioner put her hands gently on my head, neck, and shoulders. All the while I was encouraged to breathe and listen to some soothing sounds on a radio. After 10 minutes I felt completely relaxed, completely focused, and very rested. Still can’t explain it, but I felt like a million bucks.
The good thing is a lot of hospital employees are going through classes to become healing touch practitioners, so ask around and see if someone can come to you and even do 10 minutes of healing touch. You will feel the stress melt away, I promise it’s worth the time. It’s non-invasive, you don’t have to take any meds, so the only thing you have to lose is a little time.
For a lot of people, “aromatherapy” means heading down to Bath & Body Works and buying a lotion that smells like a beach. Not true. I bet if you spent 45 seconds on your facebook timeline, you’ll find someone who is all about their essential oils. It’s like the next big thing. The reality, however, is that aromatherapy is nothing new.
Think about it, way back in the day before people were able to pop a tylenol or apply Head-On directly to the forehead, people used a lot of different ways to heal using what was readily available to them. Often this was plants and oils. Fast-forward to today and those same oils are becoming very popular as people seek ways to heal without medicine or invasive procedures.
I learned about aromatherapy about a year ago at an integrative therapy educational session at work and thought it was pretty awesome. It’s amazing how you can just basically put a cotton ball in a little cup, add a few drops of essential oils to it, put it next to you on your desk and really get your heal on. For example: stress got you feeling nauseated? Use some ginger essential oil, which settles the digestive system and stimulates appetite. Sound like bunk? One day I was feeling extremely sick to my stomach at work and needed to stick through it to work a particular event. I sat at my desk with some ginger essential oil and felt better in no time. It was pretty awesome.
There’s so many great uses for aromatherapy and I encourage you to research them more on your own. Look into things like Bergamot, which is an antidepressant, or Lavender, which – when mixed with vanilla – can help reduce fear and anxiety prior to medical procedures…hint hint.
When I was in college I took a lot of psychology classes and I’ll never forget one professor who taught us about breathing exercises to reduce stress. She said “If you’re waiting on that big job interview one day and you’re freaking out, just close your eyes, take a deep breath through your nose and release slowly through your mouth.” I’ll never forget it because it works. Taking a few moments to focus on your breathing can really help relax you and relieve some stress.
An exercise that I found works great is to breathe in slowly through your nose, counting to 4. Then hold it for 2 or 3 seconds and release slowly through your mouth for another count of 4. If you close your eyes and do this a couple times, you’ll be amazed how relaxed you can feel. The best thing is you can do breathing exercises wherever you are: in your office, at home, at the hospital, in the car (don’t close your eyes for this one). And again, no meds involved in helping you feel better.
There’s lots of great breathing exercises out there in a wide range of difficulties. If you want to take it to the next level, check out this list: http://healthland.time.com/2012/10/08/6-breathing-exercises-to-relax-in-10-minutes-or-less/
Rock it Out
Anyone who knows me knows that I am pretty obsessed with music. Gotta have music when I drive, sometimes I’ll put Pandora on and let the kids dance around, I love concerts. Music is a powerful thing.
Think about it: you listen to that one song that reminds you of a person or place in time and it’s like it brings you right back. There is music that can bring you happy thoughts and memories and there is music that can calm…I know everyone has that song or songs that can calm them down.
More recently a lot of work has been going into studying the effect of music on the human brain. I’m sure by now we’ve all seen the video of the old man in a nursing home who can’t even remember his own daughter, but when they play his favorite music, he sings and becomes far more responsive than he was. Music has been shown to unlock memories that sometimes we think have been lost, whether that’s through time or illness.
So I encourage you to take that time and let music set you free. If you’re going for a hospital stay, pack some music with you on an mp3 player. If you can’t do that, step away for a few minutes, lock yourself in your car, and listen to some music. It’ll be like a nice re-set for your mind.
Get a Hobby Already
Work work appointments work appointments clean up barf work work appointments laundry dishes cooking work work clean poop work. That’s life, right? We run ourselves into the ground doing things that – while important – are depleting our energy and we don’t make time for ourselves. Get…a…hobby. It’s not a selfish thing to do. It can be anything: play basketball, learn an instrument, collect stamps, learn to breakdance, master the unicycle. Whatever, just do it. If you know me, you also know that my addiction to coffee is right up there with my obsession with music. For the last few months I’ve begun roasting my own coffee beans at home using a popcorn popper. I order the beans raw from a supplier, and when I want some coffee, I take my popcorn popper outside, roast the beans, and the next morning I can grind up some super-fresh coffee. You just can’t get it any fresher! And it makes a world of difference…plus the roasting process makes your clothes smell AMAZING. I really enjoy the process of roasting coffee…it just makes me very happy, and when I drink a fresh cup and it tastes good, I feel very accomplished. And as weird as it sounds, I really enjoy just watching those beans spinning around in the popper, turning from green to brown. It’s a relaxing sight.
A hobby is a much better relaxing activity than sitting around binge-watching shows on Netflix (though that can be fun too) because it stimulates a level of creativity and provides a nice level of self-esteem. And I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a really great thing.
But Wait, There’s More
I could go on and on with all of these self-care ideas, but I don’t want to make you cross-eyed: so I encourage you to do some more research on the interwebs about things to help you relieve stress and relax. Look into things like mindfulness and guided imagery. Maybe acupuncture is for you. I know the life of a heart parent, heck ANY parent, is a stressful one. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be concerned about things. But for right now, you are your child’s best advocate and their companion along this long journey. The reality is, if you don’t stop and take care of yourself, you’re going to break down, you’re going to get sick, or worse. Don’t let your heart warrior go at it alone. Give yourself all the best shot of success by taking time out for you.