Caregiving is demanding and can be a source of profound stress. Many caregivers, especially those who look after family, get no breaks and put other people’s needs above theirs most of the time. A role done out of love and loyalty, each year family caregivers in the United States provide some $375 billion of unpaid services1. Who’s taking care of these people? Where is the care for the carer?
Perhaps you are the mother of a chronically sick child who is under a strict protocol of dietary requirements and supplements? Or you spend your day chauffeuring your kids to and from school and extracurricular activities?
Do you have a child with a label such as ADHD or autism? Or is your parent showing signs of dementia or is already living with Alzheimer’s?
Maybe you are a professional caregiver. So many nurses are overworked and often find themselves in stressful and even dangerous situations.
This is unlikely the first time someone has brought up the topic of the care of you. Maybe you have already experienced the symptoms of burnout. If you are reading this now, maybe it is time to seriously consider what care you have for yourself. Do you make sure you have as good a diet as the one you prepare for your children? Do you meditate or use the tools as much as you teach your clients? Do you have any me-time?
Why Take Time For Yourself?
We are no good to others if we ourselves are running on an empty tank. Or on adrenaline, which is not great news as the adrenals getting depleted. Everyone needs to replenish and no less, those who are primary caregivers.
Taking time for ourselves is not a selfish act.
Taking time for ourselves to ensure that we are nourished means we can be more present, emotionally available, and generally more resilient to take on the responsibility of caring for others. This is true whether you are a stay-at-home mom, a teacher, a nurse or in any capacity as a caregiver.
We have all been end of the line, where we are so fatigued that we can fall asleep standing up. Or so tired and wired that you just want to pull your hair out? Remember how irritable, impatient, and quick to anger you are when you are this stressed? Or maybe you withdraw? Do the same thoughts loop through endlessly in your mind? All this not only depletes us physically, emotionally, and mentally. It also affects our relationships and the general quality of our life.
Care for the Carer
Here are some suggestions that are simple and easily overlooked for caregivers and everyone alike. This is by no means a complete list – they are some starting points to think about how to improve your own care and incorporating your own ways. If your first thought reading this is that you don’t have time, then double your efforts to block out that time in your schedule. If we cannot take five minutes to focus on our breathing, then that is five minutes we definitely need to take to focus on our breathing.
Hydration is perhaps the simplest and most overlooked health-promoting activity. Drink plenty of clean filtered water. Consider getting a filter to remove unwanted substances like fluoride and chlorine. For generations brought up on sugary drinks, water may not be tasty. Squeeze some lemon into it or add some fruits. Have more plain water or fresh fruits whenever you have a cup of coffee or other caffeinated drinks. Also increase your intake whenever you are feeling stressed, fatigued, or hungry and of course as the temperature and activity go up.
Turn in at a good hour, like 10PM or better yet, when the sun goes down. Make a habit of going to sleep and waking up the same time every night and every morning. Or at least as close as possible.
Put away your smartphone and turn off the computer, router, and TV as early as you can and make sure to keep them out of the bedroom. The blue light from these devices, and light in general, interferes with our natural circadian cycle that allows us to sleep and wake at the appropriate time of the day.
Voluntary exercise is shown to be good for the brain though moving does not need to be in a gym. It can be a gentle walk after dinner or dancing to your favourite music.
It means not sitting or standing the whole day – keep changing position. Get up for a stretch, grab a glass of water, or stand outside in the grass to discharge. Try squatting as your natural resting position.
Learning how to use a foam roller is another way to keep your muscles supple.
Even closing your eyes and focusing on your breath for five minutes has health benefits. Do what you can and build up from there. Breathing deeply and fully is good for our health. Drop your attention from your mind to your heart. Allow your chi to sink. Find your centre of gravity and balance. Find your quiet space.
FIND A HOBBY
Explore something that is completely unrelated to your work or what you spend most of your time on. Get outside the box. Learning a new skill, especially linguistics, boosts brain health.
BE OKAY SAYING NO
This is about having good boundaries and knowing your own energy flow. Clear some space on your calendar for some me-time. Get comfortable asking for help. Say yes when you really feel it’s the right thing. Learn about your specific inner authority to tell the difference.
Reduce “Ego Threat” Stress
In The Telomere Effect, caregivers were invited to participate in studies on the effect of stress on telomeres. These are the noncoding DNA found at the end of chromosomes. With each cell division, telomeres shorten though they can also lengthen depending on many factors.
The researcher authors share an extensive list of ways to promote healthy aging, to extend the healthspan and lifespan. One of these suggestions is not to identify so strongly with who you think you are. It is healthier not to wrap up your identity such as caregiver as who you are in the entirety or to tie who you are to a single event. We are more likely to experience threat stress when our identity is challenged.
They suggest focusing on your values. Value affirmation has been shown in studies to reduce stress responses. By remembering their values, a person can more easily feel challenged to rise to the occasion.
Enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing. We have been taught the value of hard work and that time is money. This thinking and expectation have put undue stress on far too many people while disconnecting them from their natural rhythms. There is something wonderful about doing absolutely nothing. Not everything that is productive is externally visible or obvious. Oftentimes it’s when we do “nothing” that inspiration comes to us, after allowing the body-mind to integrate data points. Think of land that’s left fallow or writing that’s set aside before revising.
GET INTO NATURE
Maybe it is a picnic in the garden, a walk in the water at the beach, or going for a hike on forest trails. There is so much goodness here – the fresh air (if not fresh, at least not stagnant indoor air), connected to the earth and other elements, moving, and perhaps being alone with yourself.
TAKE A BATH
Or a foot bath with epsom or other types of salt. If you love essential oils, create your own special blend to add to your bath. This is relaxing and cleans the energetic field.
We so often eat on the run or when we multi-task. Slow down and focus on eating so that you can chew enough (try 21 times) to ensure proper digestion. Give gratitude to everyone and everything involved in getting your food to your plate so you can nourish yourself with earth’s bounty.
LIVE IN GRATITUDE
Gratitude is a renewing emotion. Depleting emotions cause biochemical changes in our body that are stress-inducing and we all know how chronic stress is not health-promoting. Research from the Institute of HeartMath shows that intentionally-generated positive emotions such as gratitude can increase coherence among our body systems, boost our resilience, and improve our heart rate variability, the last being an important indicator of health.
Leave your problems in a journal. Complaining is a depleting activity. Carefully choose who you discuss your challenges with. The energy, intention, and general approach of who you keep company with affects your emotional well-being.
CARE, NOT OVERCARE
Know the difference between balanced care and overcare, a concept from the Institute of HearMath. When care becomes stressful, and feelings such as anger, frustration, and impatience arise, you have crossed over the fine line into overcare. Overcare depletes, feels heavy, and eventually leads to burnout and anxiety.
And let’s give yourself a hug and a pat on the back, you are doing a great job. You are doing the best you can. We all are.
Caregivers undoubtedly play an invaluable role, one that often comes from love and loyalty. Perhaps you know someone like this in your life? Maybe it’s your friend or sibling who has a child who requires full-time care. Maybe that caregiver is you.
Then you may know that caregivers are one of the most chronically stressed and underappreciated. Perhaps we assume or at least wishfully hope because they are caregivers, they would be expert at giving themselves necessary attention as well.
Having time to care for the carer is so important, for their health and also as a pillar of support for her circle. Care for the carer does not have to be elaborate, time-consuming, or costly. It does require the carer to recognize its importance and their dedication to embed practices that work for them. Imposing more responsibilities can be an additional source of stress, if not done properly.
Try these tips to increase care for the carer. Even a few minutes every day of many of what’s been suggested has cumulative effects. The more we incorporate these tips and make them into habits, piggybacking them onto their existing schedule, the more easily they will work to increase the wellbeing of the carer.
1 This is quoted from the book The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel (2017). Their source is Evercare by United Healthcare and the National Alliance for Caregiving, “Evercare Survey of the Economic Downtown and Its Impact on Family Caregiving” (March 2009), 1.
Identified by health researchers as one of the most chronically stressed groups, they were invited to be part of the studies about the effect of stress on telomeres conducted by the authors of The Telomere Effect.