Replenish the Well
For many caregivers, even the most basic self-care falls by the wayside -- with potentially dire consequences. In fact, more than half of all caregivers surveyed in a 2006 study conducted by the National Alliance of Caregiving and Evercare reported that caring for someone else made their own health at least moderately worse.
"This extreme form of tension and self-sacrifice can be traumatizing and debilitating, and can produce symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder," says Charles Figley, Ph.D., author of "Treating Compassion Fatigue." The resulting issues -- depression, insomnia, lethargy, panic attacks, headaches, and weight gain or loss -- are common among health-care professionals and emergency first-responders who are overwhelmed.
In addition to the physical effects of caregiver stress, negative emotions take their toll, too. "Many people feel angry, resentful, sad, even fearful about being caregivers when they didn't choose it," notes Babette Rothschild, author of "Help for the Helper." "This is a natural reaction to any stressful event, so give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel." The more you care for your own physical and emotional needs, the less these uncomfortable feelings will cloud your outlook and ruin your mood.
Self-Care Strategy: Do Something for Yourself Every Day
Go for a short walk around the block or commit to 20 minutes on the treadmill. Make (and keep) a dentist's appointment that's long overdue. Take five minutes alone with the phone off and the door shut so you can sit in complete and utter quiet. To ensure your caregiving demands don't sabotage your good intentions, try signing up for something that takes you out of the house at least once a week -- a Pilates or yoga class, for instance.
They say that if you want something done, you should ask the busiest person. Caregivers undoubtedly fall into this camp, with their Atlas-like burden of demands and worries on their shoulders. The very idea of handing off any of your work may seem completely out of the question, but it's imperative that you try, as not asking for help can intensify your sense of isolation, says Sharon Langshur, coauthor of "We Carry Each Other." "This feeling only increases with lack of communication and community."
Fortunately, the solution is as straightforward as letting people in. When her own son Matthew was born with a congenital heart defect requiring three open-heart surgeries, Langshur and her husband, Eric, were thrown into intensive caregiver roles. Her brother created an online bulletin board to update friends and family on Matthew's medical condition, and the couple soon became dependent on the messages of support that came pouring in. "It was incredibly powerful just to know that people cared and wanted to help," says Langshur. (When Matthew recovered, Langshur and her husband in turn created the website carepages.com for other caregivers.)
Self-Care Strategy: Reach Out
Sharing the load doesn't have to mean throwing up your hands and admitting defeat. It means figuring out what needs to get done and delegating a few specific tasks, such as driving a loved one to the dentist, picking up a bag of groceries, or maybe just providing some company. People often want to other practical help, especially when they know how much you need the support. It's usually less of a burden on others than you think.
Take Off Your Caregiver Hat
Some dedicated caregivers almost wear their exhaustion as a badge of honor. However, identifying yourself solely as a caregiver lies at the heart of compassion fatigue, says caregiving expert Beth Witrogen, author of "Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal."
"You'll run into problems if you can't detach from that role." With all your mental focus and activities dwelling exclusively on the subject of illness, life starts to become disease-centric -- and that sets the stage for burnout. On the other hand, "To see yourself as separate from it can be very energizing," she says. You start to remember who you were before, and who you are.
Self-Care Strategy: Be More Than a "Caregiver"
What were you before this role? A teacher or graphic designer? A runner? An avid gardener? Putting other hats back on is particularly important if you find caregiving overwhelming -- and vital when it comes to retaining some sense of normalcy. Even some light, frivolous things (a good movie, celebrity gossip, shopping) can expand your outlook. "It's important to leave the environment whenever possible in order to glimpse a world beyond it," says Langshur.
Though obviously difficult to bear, illness and disability can teach us lessons about letting go, compassion, and forgiveness. We all, at some point, become sick and die, as do our loved ones. To witness and stand by another as he or she undergoes this process can provide priceless insight. If you can come to see this burden as a gift, you'll be better able to shoulder the challenges you face -- and more open and able to learn from them.
Not that it's easy. Witrogen admits that she struggled with survivor's guilt when her parents were sick and dying, as if she should have been able to save them. "But I soon learned that our job as caregivers isn't to save a loved one from death. It's to love and accept that person as she is."
Self-Care Strategy: Let Go Of Trying to "Fix" Things
Sometimes when a situation is too painful or fraught with difficulty, all you can do is let go. Rather than attempt the impossible, focus your energy on being there for your loved one. It could be a smile, a rift healed, the promise of hope, or simply staying present. In this way, the dark times can be transformative, guiding us gently toward what's essential. "I like to think of it as midwifing grace," says Witrogen. "It's a spiritual journey on which you're called to love and nurture in a whole different way."
Text by Mark McDevitt