Self-care for the caregiver

Marlynn Wei, MD, JD

Contributing Editor

Caregiving can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Whether you are in the profession of caregiving or taking care of a loved one, it is important to remember to recharge your batteries. For family members, caregiving can also lead to additional pressures, such as financial strain, family conflict, and social withdrawal. Over time, caregiver stress can lead to burnout, a condition marked by irritability, fatigue, problems with sleep, weight gain, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, and social isolation.

Caregiver burnout is an example of how repeated exposure to stress harms mental and physical health. Chronic stress triggers a release of stress hormones in the body, which can lead to exhaustion, irritability, a weakened immune system, digestive distress, headaches, pains, and weight gain, especially in the midsection of the body.

Your body does have a natural way to combat stress. The counter-stress system is called the “relaxation response,” regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. You can purposefully activate the relaxation response through mind-body practices like yoga, tai chi, meditation, and deep relaxation techniques.

5 ways to care for yourself if you are a caregiver

1.   Self-compassion is essential to self-care.

Being kind to yourself builds the foundation to self-care. Self-compassion means giving yourself credit for the tough, complex work of caregiving, stepping away from the self-critical, harsh inner voice, and allowing yourself time — even if it’s just a few minutes a day — to take care of yourself.

Lack of time or energy can make getting that time away particularly challenging. You may even feel guilty or selfish for paying attention to your own needs. What you need to know is this: in fact, practicing self-care allows the caregiver to remain more balanced, focused, and effective, which helps everyone involved.

2.   Practice simple breath awareness for 10 minutes a day.

One of the simplest deep relaxation techniques is breath awareness. We go over breath awareness, paced breathing, and other breath techniques in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga. Here is one you can try:

  • Find a comfortable seated position on a chair or cushion.
  • Close your eyes and begin to notice your breath.
  • It is common to have distracting thoughts come and go, but just let them pass, and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for five counts, hold and pause for five counts,* and exhale for five counts.
  • Continue for 10 minutes. You may substitute phrases for the counts such as:

I breathe in calm and relaxing energy.

I pause to let the quiet energy relax my body.

I breathe out and release any anxious or tense energy.

  • For deeper relaxation, gradually extend your exhalation, until you reach an exhalation twice the length of the inhalation (10 counts).

*Breathing exercises should not be painful or uncomfortable; if holding your breath is uncomfortable, just eliminate the pause between the inhalation and exhalation.

3.   Try a mind-body practice like yoga, tai chi, meditation, and deep relaxation techniques.

Mind-body practices not only build physical health, but also deepen the awareness and connection between the mind and body. Yoga has been shown to reduce stress in caregiving groups, like family of those with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. We describe yoga breathing, poses, and meditation techniques in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.

Mindfulness meditation and deep relaxation techniques can reduce stress. Guided audio meditations are available online:

4.   Make eating well and getting quality sleep priorities.

It’s easy to forget about your own meals and needs when trying to help others. Maintaining adequate sleep and nutrition are key to preventing caregiver burnout. Build a daily 10-minute nighttime routine to achieve more restful sleep. Your nighttime routine can include your breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga poses. Missing meals can lead to irritability and fatigue, so it is important to eat regularly scheduled meals throughout the day.

Nutrition can also be an important factor to prevent burnout. Chronic stress has been linked to increased inflammation in the body, so it is helpful to avoid foods that are processed or high in refined sugars, which increase inflammation in the body. Avoid or reduce alcohol, since alcohol both increases inflammation in the body and disrupts quality of sleep.

5.   Remain socially connected. Find support through local caregiver support groups.

While it can be difficult to keep social appointments with friends and family in the face of medical caretaking, it is important to maintain social connections to feel less isolated and prevent burnout.

Realizing that you’re not alone and that others are going through similar experiences nurtures your ability to be self-compassionate. Hospitals and local organizations often offer caregiver support groups for family and caregivers.


Dr. Marlynn Wei is the keynote speaker at South County Hospital’s Women’s Wellness Day at the Newport Marriott on Saturday, October 27, 2018. She will offer self-care tips to relieve caregiver stress and prevent caregiver burnout.

Comments:

  1. William (Bill) Ibarra

    Caregivers usually forget to take care of them selfs.
    Always remember self care, if you are in no condition to care you most definitely do not want to end up being the one that someone else is caring for.
    Give your self time(your time) exercise, detach your self,
    Eat well, rest well and accept what is taking place with your person in need. Someone has to be the driver.
    Surround your self with positive and supportive friends.
    Do not get dragged in to the storm, pull them on to your peace.
    Karma will give you energy
    Be kind and understanding to those that need you

  2. Bob

    Care giving can be pretty full on and isolating. What ever help you can get from social, govt and community services should be your main priority to allow you some time for yourself personally and respite. I would speak to people in social services, community care, respite services and any others in a similar situation to you to get their advice on what help is out there and don’t be afraid to accept services because you will need it and their may even be govt funding available for it. No easy job is care giving and extremely vital to the community so I would not be surprised if their is more govt and community support out there for the caregiver.

  3. Lule West

    Thank you so much for understanding our situation and for the sage advice….it can be a
    very lonely job……because of the nature of being
    a caretaker, it is easy to neglect our own needs
    to an extreme point

  4. Kannan Public Health

    It is a very good and Timely article globally as the rising life expectancy coupled with break up of Joint family system has thrown open the challenge of Caregivers in developing countries. It is rather sad that I am currently associated with an Active ageing Centre in a Metro Town Bangalore in India and have seen senir citizens In north and for 2 Years in Kerala with an highest life expectancy . My observation that it is high time that the care givers health is also taken in policies for the elderly as different morbidities necessiate a different and customised approach.

  5. Gabriela Moreno

    Very actualized theme.
    In your opinion, when do you consider this stress correspond to a proffessional illness and the person must receive the health attention under the coverage of labor laws?
    Thanks for the opinion.

  6. Subhash Bansal

    It is a very informative, pragmatic and useful article. We see the care giver is the least cared person.All the attention gets focussed on the patient.
    It’s very essential that care giver should remain fit and robust to take care of all-time changing needs of the grave situations.
    The tips, elaborated in the article, are practicable and worth- emulating.
    Thanks for such a nice article.
    Subhash Bansal

  7. ALICE

    I am the wife and caregiver of my husband who has mental health issues. and Alzheimer’s .it is hard on me and our Special needs Daughter. SSD does not give me caregivers pay. I only get Spouse benefits not much. But It is stressful especially when He gibber jabbing doesn’t make sense and has AdD, hearing problems etc. I pray every day for his healing and God to give me strength. Take care, everybody . Thanks for letting me air it out.

  8. Pedro

    The exhaustive life of a CAREGIVER has sometimes bad consequences.
    I know one who dedicated more than 10 years of his life and he gain a potential lethal CARDIAC ARRHYTHMIA
    SUSTAINED VENTRICULAR TACHYCARDIA and a CARDIAC DEVICE TO DETECT AND SHOCK THE HEART.
    He care his wife suffering from MYELOMA.

  9. Patricia Rose Williams

    Hi,
    Thanks for a great summary! You mention how essential self-compassion is to self-care for caregivers. There are specific training opportunities in mindful self-compassion (MSC) and the developers of MSC, Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer, offer free on-line meditations and exercises that help cultivate the skill of self-compassion. The 8-week MSC program has solid empirical evidence in terms of reducing anxiety and depression, enhancing wellbeing and many other benefits, including acting as a buffer against compassion fatigue.

  10. Jennifer Aguiar

    This is very important information. I spent 6 years caring for my grandmother and it was incredibly stressful at times. I survived those years with lots of exercise, regular massage and yoga (which I did before my time with her and still do). I knew the importance of caring for myself but my grandmother would (try to) make me feel selfish and guilty. That had more to do with our generational differences than anything though, and she never wanted me to leave the house. Please do take care of yourself if you are a caregiver. If you are stressed out and unhealthy, you aren’t much help for anyone else.

  11. Lonnell Vaughn Jr.

    Good information.

    • Constancia H Roca

      Thanks so much, I’m retired Registered Dietician and my oldest sister is now on hospice, she doesn’t have family so I’m trying to help out
      Thanks for the info cuz need to destress

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