The Best Self-Care for Family Caregivers
Do you find yourself getting sick more often than usual? Do you occasionally throw out your back or suffer other painful strains? If you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a long time, it could be that your sore body or worried mind won’t let you rest long enough to get refreshed. Long-term stress may be the culprit.
Studies show that people who provide home care for a loved one may experience mental and physical health problems more frequently than the general population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the positive emotions associated with caregiving may be overshadowed by the influences of prolonged stress. These can result in more frequent colds and flu, back pain, sleep disorders, and high blood pressure. Such problems leave you vulnerable to injuries and chronic illness.
Consider all you do for a loved one in a day, including feeding, cleaning, keeping appointments, and providing entertainment. Your obligations might overwhelm your stores of patience and energy. As a result, you feel stress, and your mind and body sense they must fight back. Remaining in this state indefinitely can reduce the quality or length of your life.
The good news is, no matter what your situation, you have the power to relieve the strain yourself, without drugs and without paying for daily help. Respite care provides just that: some well-deserved relief from your caregiving obligations. To stay healthy, you must first acknowledge the value of taking periodic breaks from your busy routine.
The Challenges You Face
The causes of stress don’t have to be life threatening to harm you. They can be as simple as having too much to do, not enough money to pay bills, or friction among family members. Whether you’re an adult child handling a parent in decline or a senior caring for a disabled spouse, the added work and worry take their toll. Your energy wanes, leaving your body with fewer resources. Your own health may spiral downward. If that happens, you won’t be able to care for others.
But what are the real effects of stress? To know that, you must understand how the brain and body interact, moving into high gear automatically when faced with challenges. Early in human history, this helped people outwit and outrun predators. They did such a good job that they evolved into creatures who could control many of the things that endangered them. Yet, they left as a legacy the biological “gift” of the stress response.
How does it work? When threatened by a person, thing, or situation, your brain sends a hormone to the pituitary gland, which signals the adrenal glands of an emergency. The adrenals release cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones into the bloodstream, where they prepare your body to respond to the stress trigger. Your breathing speeds up. Your muscles tense, and your heart beats faster. You might answer such a call to action by running, fighting, or coming up with a verbal reply. This all takes place in seconds.
When the cortisol travels through the bloodstream back to the pituitary gland and brain, it cuts off further hormone release there. This mechanism stops if the perceived threat has ended. If not, the process continues.
The trick to avoiding long-term stress is to form personal habits that rejuvenate you, making sure to set aside time for them in your schedule. Sure, it can be tough to find 30 or even 15 minutes a day to practice a hobby, an exercise routine, or another activity that you love. By seeking respite care for the loved one in your charge, even a few hours a week or one day per month, you’ll find the time and the motivation to do something good for your health.
The Risks to Your Health
Suppose your body and brain remain on high alert day after day, for weeks, months, or even years. The same substances that prep your muscles and mind for action can give you tension headaches or pain in the back and neck. Elevated levels of stress-response hormones also trigger increased blood pressure and blood sugar, as well as gastrointestinal changes.
When symptoms brought on by hormones persist, they place physical strain on various body systems. These are the factors that can bring about chronic health problems or make existing conditions worse. Heart disease, lung disease, and cancer--the three leading causes of death in America--are among the potential effects. Unrelieved stress on the respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, endocrine, immune, and gastrointestinal systems also increases your risk for:
- heart attack
- high blood pressure
- chronic pain
- infectious diseases
- inflammatory bowel disease
In addition to these physical ailments, a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted, anxiety and depression are common among family caregivers. These psychological states can further disturb sleep patterns, cause weight problems, or add to cardiac or gastrointestinal strain. Being anxious or depressed also affects your personal relationship with the loved one in your care.
Your reaction to your own declining health and well-being can make all the difference in whether your condition improves or worsens. Turning to smoking or drinking, for example, increases the burden on your respiratory, circulatory, and endocrine systems. This type of short-term relief causes more long-term harm than good.
Caring for yourself in a way that alleviates and intervenes with growing health problems, however, can turn things around for you. Mental and physical breaks and good nutrition will help you sleep better and increase your energy reserves. Feeling healthier will allow you to manage, not just react to, the challenges in your life. Learn how establishing this positive cycle will help you break the vicious circle of your body’s reaction to the stress response.
The Personal Steps You Can Take
Apart from getting the medical and mental health care you need, self-care is the most important effort you can take to preserve your ability to care for others. You might already feel over-extended and out of options. This is where in-home respite care comes in. Securing the services of an outside caregiver can provide the buffer zone you need to focus on yourself.
Before you can do that, you must first acknowledge that: a) you face important challenges daily, and b) the stress response they cause has a direct effect on your body and mind. Even though picking up after another person or helping someone around the house seem like small things, they add up. They also keep you from doing the things you would normally do to stay well and happy.
Your loved one might add arguments or a negative attitude to an already trying situation. If you are physically and mentally healthy, you’ll find ways to handle these challenges. If you’re running on empty, the problems may escalate, increasing the toll on your well-being. Many home health care franchises cheerfully provide respite services, stepping in to take care of your loved one for a few hours, once a week, or on a periodic basis.
That’s not the cure for unrelieved stress, though. The other part of the equation is that you use that time to restore your health and energy. With a qualified caregiver watching over Mom or Dad, you can go get a massage, fit in the clothes shopping you need to do, or cook a week’s worth of nutritious food, so you can spend 30 minutes each day exercising or relaxing.
Many articles on reducing stress, including advice from AARP and the National Cancer Institute, suggest using some form of meditation regularly to halt the stress response. Don’t shy away from the term. Meditation doesn’t have to involve chanting or breath work. You can use your favorite hobby or form of exercise to free your mind and relax your body.
Any activity will do, as long as it makes you concentrate hard enough to forget what time it is or what your next move ought to be. You might take a bike ride, play with pets, work a puzzle, or get caught up in a baseball game on television. Volunteering outside the home, AARP relates, is another way to get positive input and build a social network. Find the time you need by arranging for respite care, and then give yourself a little TLC. Consider that an important part of the “care” in caregiving.
AARP: “6 Ways to Help You Cope and Remain Strong”
Bevans, Margaret F., RN, PHD, LCDR and Esther M. Sternberg, MD: “Caregiving Burden, Stress, and Health Effects Among Family Caregivers of Adult Cancer Patients”
JAMA 2012 Jan 25; 307(4): 3989-403.