Caring Too Much

News, Summer 2016

Women Must Put Themselves First, to Help Others

BY KARA SCHWEISS
PHOTOS BY DEBRA S. KAPLAN

We’ve all done it: Taken better care of others—our parents, friends, partners and children—than we do ourselves. The fact is, many women are very good at putting themselves last.

“I see a lot of women who are very nurturing of their families: their children, their parents, even their co-workers,” says Dr. Katharine McLeese, an associate physician with Think Whole Person Healthcare. “But they won’t take care of themselves.”

Why is it that the same women who have such a fierce instinct to take care of others put their own health and wellness so low on the priority list?

“Our nurturing quality can be protective,” says Omaha Integrative Care Founder Julie Luzarraga. “However, it can also keep us from taking care of ourselves.”

It’s easy to associate a delay in care, or outright neglect, with negative health consequences for an individual woman. But not taking conscientious care of herself can also affect the very people a woman in a caregiving role is trying to put first.

“You can’t do caregiving if you’re not well,” McLeese says. “The more you’re able-bodied and fit and healthy, the better you can take care of others.”

WELLCOM President and CEO Rebecca Vinton likens it to putting your oxygen mask on first, as the airlines instruct, in an airplane emergency. “You need to stop and think about it before you can take care of everyone and everything else,” she said.

One of the first steps a woman can take to improve her personal health and wellness, the professionals say, is to commit to a simple change in mindset: She must believe she is as deserving of the same care and consideration as anyone else.

“The research shows that if we want to make a behavior change, the first thing we actually need to work on is self-compassion,” Luzarraga says. “Self-compassion is not only treating yourself as you would treat others, but the piece of compassion that’s different from empathy is that compassion motivates you to do something about it.”

Vinton agrees. “You need to find what is it that ‘fills your bucket.’ And find-
ing that, not feel bad or guilty. If we’re always giving a little to a lot of different things, sometimes we need to be better at focusing on what we are doing in the moment.”

Julie Luzzaraga_articleWhen there’s too much on her “plate,” a woman shouldn’t feel like she has to “get a bigger plate,” Luzarraga adds. “It’s being mindful of choices, and that’s OK. We shouldn’t feel bad about that or ashamed or guilty. And it’s OK to have support and it’s OK to say no.”

Lifestyle changes begin with a comprehensive look at not only a woman’s life (career, family, love relationships, activities, etc.) but also her physical health. For some women, an honest self-assessment of the state of her health and wellness can be disheartening. It’s hard to admit to such factors as being overweight, not getting enough exercise, that alcohol use has become a habit, that symptoms of a hereditary health condition have crept in. Other women hesitate to set that appointment for a checkup because they fear bad news. But getting a checkup is a good starting point—especially if it’s been years since a doctor’s visit or if visits are typically only for acute conditions.

“Probably the biggest challenge is helping people understand what they can’t see; the changes that aren’t visible or symptomatic,” McLeese says. “Even if you’re afraid of what you might hear, it’s important to take that first step and go in and see a doctor for a wellness check. You can take some of the anxiety of the unknown out of the situation.”

She adds that being proactive in one’s own healthcare can have implications for many future years, especially considering that women typically live longer than men.

“Know your numbers. Get your vaccinations. I’m not a proponent of heavy medical testing, but I think it’s very important to look at elements of your healthcare that might affect you over decades,” McLeese says. “I have a lot of patients in their 90s who are in terrific health. We always wonder if that’s because they took good care of themselves or is that their genes? Who knows? But those things usually don’t ‘just happen,’ so those people probably actively took steps.”

Finding a good medical team helps women establish good preventive care, she adds, and a team approach is fundamental to how Think Whole Person Healthcare operates.

“Most of health care, I believe, has become fragmented—people see that specialist and go to this clinic and the left hand really doesn’t talk to the right hand—and communication is very challenging. As more of our population is aging and they have more complex health care needs, they really need one person who can be the coordinator of that care and tackle these lifelong health problems,” McLeese says. “In a high-tech world, we’re trying to get back to that relationship and help people have a group of providers who will help guide them in their journey.”

A woman’s well-being is not just her physical health, and addressing wellness is an essential component of taking care of herself, Luzarraga says. The ‘integrative’ in integrative medicine and Omaha Integrative Care refers to both traditional and complementary wellness and health services. This includes a wide spectrum of services—from primary care and physical therapy to counseling to massage and yoga—that women can access to improve, manage, or maintain their health and well-being.

“I think that healthcare unfortunately has become about sickness and illness,” Luzarraga explains. “Wellness is how to live your best life, how to live your life to the fullest.”

“We need to understand the connection between mind and body, how our mental well-being affects our physical health,” McLeese says. “Who among us can’t learn better stress management, for instance?”

Wellness services should be as highly individualized as health care, Luzarraga says.

“With integrative medicine, one of the things that we’re seeing is that even genetically—we used to think of it as ‘constitutionally’—we’re seeing in the research and the science that we’re all made differently. So we all respond differently to foods, to medicines, even types of exercise and self-care,” she says. “Get to know yourself and then establish what self-care means to you.”

People spend a significant portion of their day in the workplace, especially if they’re employed full-time, so employers should also consider a multifaceted approach to promoting well-being for their workers, Vinton says.

“We’re talking about the whole person, not just their physical well-being—the mind, body and soul, all aspects of wellness,” she says. “People automatically think of the physical, like having a fitness center, but it’s much bigger than that: Do your employees feel valued and appreciated? Do they have opportunities to better themselves in their careers? Do they feel they have the ability to have a flexible schedule?”

Instead of making sweeping lifestyle changes or setting extreme goals, try making small changes that are achievable and can bring about the confidence needed for bigger changes later, Luzarraga says. “You’re more likely to take action if it’s one thing right now, one thing today,” she says, adding that many women can benefit from thinking of self-care as a priority instead of a luxury.

Employers should also stop thinking of wellness initiatives as frivolous, Vinton says.

“We are the first nonprofit in the United States dedicated to providing resources to businesses—of all sizes—to implement wellness at the workplace,” she says. “When we work with businesses, the first step is to create an infrastructure similar to any other business model they may have. Businesses need to position wellness the same way and look at it as a strategy to improve the business.”

Katharine McLeese_articleEmployers benefit from more engaged and present employees who feel valued and enjoy their work environment, but businesses should do some analysis and solicit input from a cross-section of their workforce before launching a wellness program, Vinton says.

“Gone are the days of ‘program of the month’…If you have opportunities across the spectrum for people to better themselves and their lives, then you are going to get a higher level of participation.”

So whether it’s making time in her day for some dedicated “me” time, setting that first appointment for a professional consultation, or checking the employee handbook for information on her company’s wellness initiatives, any woman can take steps to better well-being starting today.

“Be your own advocate,” McLeese says. W

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