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.
Stress triggers a hormonal response. With short-term stress, these hormones cause changes in your body that allow you to fight or flee danger, and that increase your mental awareness of other threats. If you don’t release this stress it can become chronic, and the hormones associated with chronic stress suppress the immune system and can lead to exhaustion. Over time, that stress can have a damaging effect on your physical and emotional health, leaving you 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 key to avoiding stress: A positive mental attitude. Looking on the bright side won’t stop bad things from happening, choosing how you react to them can make you feel more in control. Many people find prayer or meditation helpful in fighting stress. Another 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.
Joan Griffiths Vega, a practitioner and teacher of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), 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 is basically coming back into the present moment, so it 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 they have a choice in how they 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 as you address the particular cause of stress. You might choose to find a friend to talk to, eat a nutritious snack or meal, or stretch 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.
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.”