Monday Medical: A year for self-care

Susan Cunningham
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today

Editor’s Note: This story is Part 2 of a two-part series recapping our favorite health tips from 2021. Part 1 focused on everyday safety tips.

While pandemic restrictions have eased, 2021 has still packed some punches, which means self-care is as important as ever.

Below, find top tips shared by local experts this past year for keeping your wits about you through a stressful time.

Fuel your brain for mental health

Feeling sluggish or down? It may be time to take stock of what’s in your pantry and fridge.

“You want to eat foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, good carbohydrates, proteins and fatty acids,” said Laura Stout, a registered dietitian nutritionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “If you don’t give your brain these things, it’s not going to function properly.”

In fact, good nutrition may help ease the low-level anxiety and depression that many people have been struggling with through the pandemic.

“A lot of us slipped into this habit of not eating so healthfully during COVID and found ourselves reaching for things like processed foods,” Stout said. “It all goes back to eating whole foods whenever possible, because they contain things that help our brain. The same foods that help protect you from chronic disease also protect your mental health.”

Address caregiver fatigue

Whether keeping tabs on a two-year-old or helping an aging parent with medications, caregivers may find precious little time for themselves — especially in these pandemic times.

“This year, I think self-care has fallen to the wayside a little bit more, and many people are experiencing caregiver stress or fatigue,” said Dr. Michelle Jimerson, a family medicine physician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at Yampa Valley Medical Center. “But it’s like the airplane oxygen mask example — you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you help someone else.”

Keep your focus on what you can control, and prioritize activities that support your overall health, such as sleep, fitness and meditation. And don’t underestimate the power of a hopeful mindset.

“We talk a lot about ‘PMA,’ or positive mental attitude — how can we reframe what’s happening?” Jimerson said. “The world is what it is, but how you think about it and how you approach it can make a huge difference in how you experience life.”

Combat brain fog with routine

Months of stress and a not-so-normal routine have left our brains in the lurch, and many people find they’re struggling with mental clarity. From the working parent who has been on hyperdrive to the retired person who lives alone and has struggled with feeling isolated, our brains have been stressed by over- and under-stimulation.

“People may start forgetting things, wondering, ‘What was I going to do today? I don’t even know,’” said Tracy Denney, an occupational therapist with UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs.

Establishing a new routine can help you ditch the dreaded brain fog. Start by getting dressed each day, even if you aren’t going anywhere. If you’re overwhelmed, try a “brain dump” each morning in which you list out the top things you have to do for the day. And if you’re underwhelmed by the days’ activities, keep your brain active by doing puzzles or learning a new hobby.

“Patients always ask, ‘Will it get better?’” Denney said. “While each patient is different, the research is there that with developing a new routine, mental fog is going to improve if you stick to it.”

Fend off stress with focused relaxation

When anxiety and stress start to build, Alison Hobson, a licensed clinical social worker at YVMC, recommends activating the parasympathetic nervous system to help your body and mind relax.

“This is the part of our body that helps us ‘rest and digest, mend and befriend,’” said Hobson. “It helps us feel a sense of relaxation, well-being and calmness.”

Take several deep breaths, breathing in for five counts and exhaling for six. Intentionally relax your shoulders, neck, jaw and face.

“After a minute, you can notice a sense of space between thoughts, a stillness that is there,” said Hobson. “Taking moments of relaxation throughout your day is always available for you.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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