By Caroline DuPont, MD
Family members often feel overwhelmed and upset by the complex, emotional responsibilities of trying to help their loved one with a substance use disorder. It can feel hard to think about anything else, but it’s important to understand that it is difficult to help someone else if you don’t also take steps to care for yourself. If you are struggling, find some time – even if only a few minutes each day – to focus on self-care. As they say on airplanes - put on your own oxygen mask first before helping another passenger.
As a practicing psychiatrist and addiction medicine doctor, I often see patients who are searching for something to help them cope with their distress. I always recommend people turn to the basic principles of health required by all: sleep, nutrition, exercise, sunshine, and positive content. This list may seem deceptively simple, but it holds a gold mine of help and lasting wellness for all of us.
#1: Are you getting enough sleep?
This is the first question I ask. “Enough” is at least 7 hours of good, quality sleep on most nights. Sometimes people claim that they don’t have time for this; to that I say, you can’t afford to miss this foundation for health. Make the time for sleep and you will get back hours of improved productivity. However, more is not always better! My follow-up question is, “Are you getting too much sleep?” Sleeping more than 9 hours or extended napping can sap your energy and drive. Also, be sure you are sleeping at night and you are awake during the day. We are creatures of routine; set your sleep schedule and follow it.
#2: Are you eating food that fuels you?
Healthy eating isn’t easy for everyone, but it is key, and a few simple changes to your diet can make a world of difference. Food is fuel and our brains need the healthy building blocks provided by regular and nutritious meals to function well. Especially when people are struggling, they need to eat plenty of protein and limit empty calories. When upset, some people don’t eat enough, and others eat too much. Simple meal planning can help structure this process.
#3. Are you moving your body?
Set a goal and a schedule and stick to it! My trick is to get fully dressed for exercise and go to the location of the activity, no matter how you feel. Usually, after putting in that initial effort, it is worth it to at least engage in the activity for a short time, even if it is difficult. Set reasonable goals that you can actually achieve. To get started, consider a daily 30-minute walk around your neighborhood. Focus on the attainable.
#4. Are you spending time outside?
Whether or not you exercise outside, spend time outdoors every day. A preschool teacher told me once, “there is no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” So, get on that appropriate clothing and head out the door to enjoy the sunshine or rain! Pay attention to the sights, sounds, and smells of the changing time of day and season.
#5. Are you surrounding yourself with positivity?
Make sure you are interacting with positive content in what you are reading, watching, listening to and even the people you are regularly interacting with. It is hard to feel good when there is negativity all around you. You’d be surprised about how your spirits can be lifted immediately by decluttering the negative content from your life while adding positives sources. What makes you laugh? What makes you feel hopeful? Which friends enrich your life? Curate your intake.
#6 Do you need to check your substance use?
Recently I added this sixth principle to my Back to Basics list. When things feel out of control or life’s usual structure is lost, it is easy for substance use to increase or restart. All substance use including alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and other drugs can negatively affect your mental and physical wellbeing. They can impact your sleep, energy level, and mood. Consider stopping all use and focusing on healthy habits. If this is difficult you should reach out for help for yourself.
These six basic strategies can help in times of crisis as well as when facing everyday stress. It is much easier to feel good if you follow these basic principles for a healthy life.
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Caroline DuPont, MD is a psychiatrist with specialties in addiction medicine and anxiety disorders. She is Vice President of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., a nonprofit organization.