Boost Self-Care by Knowing Your Numbers

**By Teera Crawford, MD**

When you think about self-care, you might think of yoga, meditation and journaling – not measuring your blood pressure.

However, tracking your critical health numbers – blood pressure, cholesterol, hemoglobin A1C and waist circumference – goes a long way in ensuring both a healthy body and healthy life. Staying on top of these will help you take charge of your health, especially as we continue to navigate the pandemic.

Of course, this is easier said than done, and learning how to identify and keep your numbers in check requires a bit of work up front. However, it is advantageous to keep up to date with this practice in the long run. Read on to understand what these numbers mean, why they’re important and how to incorporate monitoring them into your self-care routine.

Blood PressureBlood pressure

Measuring your blood pressure consists of familiarizing yourself with two numbers: systolic and diastolic. Systolic tells you how much pressure your blood is exerting on the blood vessels with each heartbeat, and diastolic tells you how much pressure your blood is exerting when your heart is relaxing. For reference, an elevated blood pressure is one that is greater than 120/80. Measuring blood pressure can be done from the comfort of your home and is as easy as purchasing and using a quality blood pressure cuff. Pro tip: when you buy a new blood pressure cuff, it’s a good idea to have it checked against the blood pressure cuff used at your doctor’s office to ensure its accuracy.

Total cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that your liver makes and is found throughout all of the cells in your body. Maintaining a certain level of cholesterol is important to keep your body functioning, but an elevated total cholesterol (a measure of the total amount of cholesterol in your blood) is more harmful than helpful. For reference, an elevated total cholesterol is one that clocks in at greater than 200. Obtaining this number requires blood tests done in a laboratory and should be checked at your doctor’s office every five years or so.

If your cholesterol errs on the higher side, or you have a family history of high cholesterol, you’ll want to get this checked a bit more frequently. Work with your doctor to set up the appropriate plan for you to keep this in check.

 Hemoglobin A1C

The hemoglobin A1C test measures the amount of blood sugar (glucose) attached to hemoglobin, or protein in your red blood cells. Hemoglobin A1C is a type of blood test typically used to screen for diabetes and can tell you your average blood sugar level over the three months prior. For reference, a measurement greater than 5.7% indicates a prediabetic range and means you’re at a higher risk for developing diabetes, while a measurement greater than 6.5% means you have diabetes. Check in with your doctor to help develop the right plan for you to stay on top of your hemoglobin A1C.

Waist circumference

Waist circumference is exactly what it sounds like – the measurement of your waist, which can fortunately be conducted at home with a flexible tape measure. Starting at the top of your hip bone, wrap the tape measurer around your body until it reaches the starting point. For reference, your waist circumference should typically be less than 40 inches for men and less than 35 inches for women. Pro tip: try to relax your body when measuring your waist to produce the most accurate reading.

Elevations in any of these numbers can lead to cardiac, vascular and other organ abnormalities over time, and Overweight Woman Measuring Waist in Gymmonitoring and staying on top of them is vital to healthy living. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and elevated numbers increase your risk of developing heart disease.

Frequent exercise is a surefire way to keep everything under control but unfortunately during the pandemic, going to the gym is not an option for all. Alternatives to the gym include online exercise videos that can be done at home or getting outside for a walk or run around your neighborhood.

In addition to exercise, it’s important to communicate about these measures openly, honestly and frequently with your doctor to set yourself up on the right path to healthier living. Pairing these efforts with your other self-care methods of choice will keep you living your best life.

Teera.CrawfordTeera Crawford, MD, is board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and specializes in women’s health, preventive care, diabetes and weight management. Dr. Crawford practices at Virginia Mason Lynnwood Medical Center


Caring for the Caregiver: Tips for Preventing Burnout

**By Bethany Davis, LSWAIC**

As a clinical social worker who supports people living with cancer, I help patients navigate a very difficult time in their lives. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: The caregivers I meet, whether spouses, family members or friends, often need support too. With the health care environment focused on the patient, caregivers can struggle to communicate with their loved one, process their own emotions or allow for any self-care.

Holding hands, Parkinson diseaseCaregiver burnout is real. Stress that leads to burnout can occur when caregivers aren’t armed with the skills and support to maintain their mental, physical and emotional health.  Anger and resentment are complicated but common emotions that can overwhelm the caregiver while facing a loved one’s unpredictable health condition.

I’ve seen caregiver burnout take many forms. People who can’t see a path out of the constant stress talk about moving away, or engage in risky behavior to dull their anxiety. I have (literally) run into caregivers in the hallway suffering panic attacks, who can’t absorb what I’m saying about self-care, let alone do it.

If you are a caregiver that identifies with these feelings, rest assured you are in good company. But here are three practical things all caregivers can try for easing the stress of caregiving and preventing burnout.

Improve Communication by Asking Questions

When a caregiver or the person being cared for makes an unchecked assumption, misunderstandings and resentment can occur. Thinking you know what a loved one really wants without asking can sometimes be more harmful than helpful.

For example, you’re caring for John, and you assume John expects you to prepare a big breakfast because he’s in treatment. But the case might be that John actually enjoys the daily activity of making his own breakfast and values his independence.

If John wants to make his own breakfast, let him. A simple way to find out what might be of real help would be to ask in the morning, “John, what do you need today?”

This will prevent feelings of a wasted effort and the potential for resentment if you communicate about how the person wants to be helped. Don’t assume, ask.

Build in Activities that You Can Enjoy Alone 

This is all about self-care and individual preference, and could be anything from getting a massage to reading your favorite magazine, or even cleaning out a closet. The key is to actually schedule the activity.

Try writing your planned activity down, including the date and time, which makes it more likely you’ll follow through. Consider creating a frequency for an activity, such as reading your new book for 25 minutes at lunchtime on designated days. The important thing is to choose things you really enjoy that are relaxing for you, whatever they may be.

Extend Your Compassion to Someone Important: YOU

No one can be prepared for the ups and downs of caregiving, as no one can predict the physical, mental or emotional changes that happen during someone’s illness and treatment. The perfect caregiver doesn’t exist. Focusing on your strengths and your motivations for caregiving in the first place can help you see yourself and your efforts in a more positive light.

LetterIf you don’t know where to start, try writing a caring letter to yourself. Note what you’ve accomplished and what you continue to do well. If a letter seems too demanding, make a list of your strengths or what you appreciate about yourself.

Need a faster pick-me-up? Try speaking or writing these affirmations:

  • Though I currently care for and care about “John,” I can still hold space to care for and nurture myself.
  • Though I currently care for and care about “John,” I am only responsible for my own emotions and well-being in the long run.
  • I am enough.

Need an even faster pick-me-up? Get a hug. If it’s comfortable for you, physical touch can be powerful and healing. Asking for a hug from a friend or family member can leave an immediate and lasting impact. If that’s not an option, intentionally wrapping yourself tightly in a warm blanket or snuggling a pillow can be nurturing as well.

Please remember: if you are feeling a change in mood that doesn’t go away despite your efforts, it may be time to call a supportive friend or connect with a mental health provider.

One More Thing: You Are Amazing

If no one has told you this yet, I will be the first: You are doing a great job. I’ll say it again: You are doing a great job. To say caregiving is hard is a colossal understatement, and doesn’t begin to describe the emotional and physical mountains you are climbing. It takes empathy, patience and a true heart to nurture and carry those who need us. And it takes caring for ourselves.

Bethany.DavisBethany Davis, LSWAIC, is an Oncology Social Worker who enjoys writing. She is currently teaching a class titled “Powerful Tools for Caregivers” on Friday mornings in the Lindeman Pavilion, Virginia Mason Seattle Medical Center.