Caregiving is no easy task. The responsibilities that come with seeing to 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 that causes changes in your body. With short-term stress, these hormones allow you to fight or flee danger, and increase your mental awareness of other threats. If you don’t release this stress it can become chronic. Over time, that stress can have a damaging effect on your physical and emotional health. The hormones associated with chronic stress can weaken your immune system and lead to fatigue. You are more likely to get sick, or to experience 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. But 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.
Our bodies are set up to handle short-term stress, but caregiving is long-term stress. Mindfulness works to prevent the stress response. Caregivers juggle a lot of tasks, and often have no time to rest.
A key part of mindfulness is learning that you have a choice in how you respond to stress. A simple technique anyone can use in times of stress is the S.T.O.P. exercise:
S: Stop what you are doing for a moment.
T: Take a breath. Focus 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 help 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 indicates that mindfulness can improve sleep and reduce chronic pain and stomach problems. Psychotherapists use mindfulness techniques to help treat depression, anxiety, addiction, and other conditions.
Mindfulness can be incorporated into any task or activity. Caregivers are often so focused on caring for others that they forget their own needs. So as a caregiver, putting “take care of yourself” back on the to-do list is very important. And it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. You might relax 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.