As caregivers, we spend a lot of our time ‘thinking of’ and ‘doing for’ our loved one(s). We have little time for ourselves. Shifting the focus back to us can feel selfish—even indulgent. Yet, self-care is critical in being a good caregiver. Taking time for yourself makes you more equipped for the challenges of caregiving, more confident in your abilities and better able to adapt and recover from the setbacks that caregiving creates. Taking time for yourself also helps you manage the stresses of caregiving.
How Stress Affects You
Stress affects both our physical and mental well-being and can lead to exhaustion, depression and resentment. It’s important to recognize the signs of stress so we can start to manage it sooner rather than later. Recognizing stress symptoms may be harder than you think. Caregivers are so used to being stressed, we often don't know we are stressed until we are at the breaking point. Common signs of stress include feelings of constant worry or anxiety, being easily agitated, feeling frustrated and/or moody, headaches, low energy, insomnia, stomach problems, forgetfulness, disorganization and inability to focus.
Six Ways to Manage Your Stress
Physical activity in any form is a great way to stay healthy and improve your mental well-being. Integrating physical activity into your daily life helps the release and uptake of endorphins in the brain. Even a 10-minute walk can increase your mental alertness, energy and positive mood.
Eating a well-balanced diet is an important factor in preventing caregiver stress. It’s easy to forget about your own diet when caring for a loved one. Avoiding processed foods and excess alcohol and eating whole grains, vegetables and fresh fruit can help reduce your risk of chronic disease and help regulate your energy level and mood.
Sleep matters. Poor sleep can affect memory, judgment and mood. Continual sleep deficiency can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, stroke and diabetes. Maintaining a healthy nightly routine (such as allowing yourself some quiet time before bed, taking a warm shower, light stretching or mediation and turning off all electronics) can help ensure a better night’s sleep. In general, adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep to function at our best.
Take time out. It can be incredibly hard to find time for yourself when you are caring for someone else, and even when you do, you are thinking about what you should be or could be doing instead. But spending time with yourself away from your caregiver responsibilities while doing something you enjoy is time well spent. Any amount of time you take for yourself is important. It helps you from being consumed by your caregiving duties and reminds you of who you are.
Be mindful. Mindfulness is a ‘moment to moment’ awareness of what’s going on with your thoughts, feelings, body and the world around you. It’s paying attention to what is happening now. And this changes your ability to transform non-productive negative thoughts into more productive positive thoughts. Practicing mindfulness on a daily basis can help reduce anxiety and improve your overall physical and mental well-being.
Stay connected with family and friends. Surrounding yourself with people you trust and respect and with whom you can share your needs, frustrations and sadness will help you feel connected. Joining a support group (either in-person or online) can help you feel less alone. Knowing that there are others who face the same sort of challenges and understand your concerns can be reassuring. Let’s face it, stress is part of a caregiver’s life. How you handle that stress is what matters. From my own experience, I learned that if you don’t take time to care for yourself, you won’t have the strength, the patience and the emotional reserves you need to care for someone else. Caregivers need to care for themselves; it’s not selfish!
Answer this riddle: What good self-care activity doesn’t require any special skill or equipment, doesn’t require payment or long-term contacts and has become the most popular form of physical activity in the US? If you said “walking,” you are right. And to help, UK Elder Care is bringing back Get Moving, a walking group for caregivers. Walking is a great way to fight caregiver stress, meet new friends and take a break from your normal routine. Your well-being should not only be a top priority for you; it’s also essential to those you are caring for!
Please join me Tuesday, September 10th and/or Wednesday, November 6th at 12:00 p.m. for a 30-minute walk and talk around campus. We’ll meet at the front entrance of the Hilary J. Boone Center at 500 Rose St.