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Caregiving is no easy task. The responsibilities that come with overseeing the day-to-day needs of another person—while often managing a household and balancing work obligations and family needs—can quickly leave even the most cheerful and organized of individuals feeling under stress. Over time, that stress can have a damaging effect on a caregiver’s physical and emotional health, leaving her prone to a host of illnesses as well as mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
As a caregiver, it is of utmost importance to get a handle on stress before it gets the best of you. One effective stress-busting tool is the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about being in the present moment and accepting it without judgment, instead of allowing one’s thoughts to race into the future or dwell in the past. It involves generating a sense of calmness by focusing the breath and other body sensations in order to quiet an anxious, restless mind. Mindfulness can lead to a feeling of relaxation and a restored sense of well-being.
“Mindfulness is basically coming back into the present moment, and the easiest way to do it is to reconnect with the breath or come down into the body,” says Joan Griffiths Vega, a practitioner and teacher of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a technique developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. When we are present, we have a greater capacity to understand our resources, which often can give a person relief, especially when dealing with circumstances beyond his or her control.
Griffiths Vega also runs a mindfulness stress-reduction workshop specifically for caregivers at Mt. Sinai Hospital. “We are set up for short-term stress, but caregiving is long-term stress. Mindfulness works to inhibit the stress response,” she says. “Most of us run around listening to our thoughts, and this is particularly true of caregivers, who are driven by the To-Do list. They are never at rest.”
As part of her mindfulness instruction, Griffiths Vega advises caregivers to develop an understanding that there is a choice: rather than always reacting to stress, they can respond to stress. A simple technique anyone can employ in times of stress is the S.T.O.P. exercise:
S: Stop what you are doing for a moment.
T: Take a breath. Concentrate on the flow of your breath in and out.
O: Observe your thoughts, feelings and physical state. Notice your thoughts and let them be or pass. Name your emotions. Notice your body, its posture. Are you hungry or thirsty? Do you have any aches or pains?
P: Proceed with something that will be helpful to you, whether that is finding a friend to talk to, eating a nutritious snack or meal or stretching to relieve body tension.
Mindfulness techniques like these have proven mental and physical benefits. Research has shown that mindfulness can be linked to decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and to lower blood pressure. Other research contends it can improve sleep and reduce chronic pain and gastrointestinal irritations. Psychotherapists use mindfulness techniques to assist with the treatment of depression, anxiety, addiction and other conditions.
Living mindfully can make you more attuned to life’s pleasures so that you can appreciate them, Griffiths Vega notes. It can help you be more engaged with people and in activities, and give you a tool to deal with life’s troubles.
Mindfulness can be incorporated into any task or activity, Griffiths Vega adds. “Caregivers exclude themselves from the equation of what it means to take care of someone. So as a caregiver, bringing yourself back into the equation of care is very important, whether by listening to music or having dinner with friends, taking a walk, having beautiful flowers in the house, sitting down and petting your cat or dog, or going outside and looking at children playing and laughing—all those things reconnect you.”