Mindful self-care for caregivers a guest post by Kristen Heller
Providing care for a family member is an act of love and dedication. When you enter the journey of caregiving (be it voluntarily or by default, suddenly or gradually), your life will change. There are so many things to learn and practice, but among the essentials would be how you as a caregiver can—and should—mindfully provide self-care for yourself.
Mindfulness is defined as a state of active, open attention on the present. It is about how you can objectively observe and assess your current condition (thoughts, feelings) without judging anything as good or bad. It is also about being aware of and living in the present, as opposed to dwelling in the past or being anxious about the future.
This liberating outlook on life has been adapted into cognitive therapy methods with promising results. A study on a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program reported participants’ (who were therapists in training) significant declines in stress, negative affect, rumination, state and trait anxiety, and significant increases in positive affect and self-compassion.
IT’S OKAY: YOUR STRUGGLE IS VALID
Many caregivers enter the journey knowing about the stress and burnout that others experience, but believe that their love for their caree will make a different story. A strong filial bond definitely helps, but it does not make all hardships disappear.
The strenuous act of caregiving day in and day out can take a toll on your health. In fact, caregiver “strain” is associated with a 63 percent increased mortality risk, higher risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, high levels of cholesterol, and two-fold increase in heart disease risk.
Seeing a once vibrant and capable family member becoming incapable to perform activities of daily living (ADLs)—namely eating, bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring/walking, continence among others—can be an overwhelming experience that requires a lot of time and effort to make peace with. Caregivers reportedly show higher levels of depression and suffer from high levels of stress and frustation.
This condition is made worse by ruminating upon the guilt from having negative emotions towards your caree or situation (resentment, anger, worry, loneliness, grief, defensiveness, ambivalence, anxiety, boredom, irritability, disgust, embarassment, fear, frustation, jealousy, being unappreciated, loss, fatigue, etc.) and feeling that you need a break from caregiving.
A mindful self-assessment will acknowledge all these negative emotions without labelling them as bad, thus breaking the guilt cycle. When you are angry, you are angry. It is unrelated to your love for your caree. When you need help, you need help. It is unrelated to your dedication and general capability as a caregiver.
Your feelings are valid. Knowing this enables you to be in control on how you want to respond to your situation.
Break the Rumination
Rumination is the act of thinking about something in a sustained fashion, which features a process known as depressive triad. The problem with rumination is that it biologically reinforces the brain to process thoughts in ways that are internal, global, and stable.
People often mistake rumination as problem solving. Problem solving is positive and solution-focused, while rumination’s depressive triad fuels depression by attributing every (usually bad) thing that happens:
- as caused by ourselves,
- will generally work the same way in other life areas, and
- will not change (for the better).
As mindfulness focuses on the present, it breaks rumination by consciously taking a time-out and thus unlinking the past, present, and future. It is common for a mindfulness practice to employ breathing techniques and meditation. Even when done just for a few minutes, the pace in which we breath tells our brain what to feel. Slow, regular breathing lowers our stress level.
ORGANISE YOUR BREAKS EFFECTIVELY
Caregiving is not a sprint. It is a marathon, and thus your strategy is to last as long as possible. It is imperative for caregivers to take a break and live to fight another day.
A common and effective advice would be to schedule a “relay” caregiving shift with another willing relative, trusted friend, or professional help.
Make Use of the Family Medical Leave Act
When you start caregiving, chances are you will need to take a leave from work for medical actions or emergencies. There is a federal law that helps you keep your job in such circumstances.
You can click here for a thorough discussion on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Getting Paid as A Family Caregiver
Caregiving will not just affect your physical and mental condition, but your finances as well. Financial difficulties also add to stress, while looking for extra sources of income will affect your already-hectic schedule. It is important to look at options and start planning as soon as possible.
You can click here to learn about the different ways you can get help as a family caregiver:
- caregiver contract,
- veterans benefits (VD-HCBS), or cash and counseling,
- Medicaid-funded programs (including CDPAP),
- long-term care insurance, and
- indirect payment via a tax credit.
Every caregiving case is different, and people uninvolved with it would not understand the intensity of hard work associated with family caregiving. This, added with the fatigue, will tempt you to isolate yourself.
Isolation must be actively resisted, and one of the ways is to join a caregiver support group. It is understandable to want to distant yourself from caregiving-related issues in your rare free time, but the amount of relief and support such groups provide will be tremendous help.
You can click here to read how a caregiver support group will:
- stop you from feeling lonely
- help you gain more knowledge
- enable you to talk openly
- help normalise you
- put you in control
- help you cope
- raise your spirits
- help you explore treatment options
SURVIVE (AND THRIVE)
“Between stimulus and response there’s a space,
in that space lies our power to choose our response,
in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When you stop ruminations from controlling your mind, you can take charge to objectively assess your situations and choose an appropriate response. Adopting a mindful mindset towards providing self-care will help you survive—and hopefully thrive—at being a caregiver.