If you are caring for an ailing family member, an aging parent or a child with disabilities, you’re likely to know a thing or two about stress. Taking on the needs of another human being with physical or cognitive problems is challenging. It can also be exhausting, depleting you of your energy, emotional resources and humor.
Part of the problem is that the demands on your time and energy don’t end with your caregiving commitment. Many people who informally care for others (that is, they’re not paid, professional caregivers) usually have to juggle a full load—a career, a family and housekeeping. That feeling of being pulled in a dozen directions can lead to chronic stress, which, left unchecked, may lead to health problems and depression.
If you are a caregiver, it’s natural for you to have mixed feelings about your role. You may love the person you’re caring for and want to do your best. But sometimes you may feel resentful about not having enough time to spend with your family or to enjoy friends or hobbies. If you’ve resigned yourself to your situation—figuring “this is my life now”—you may have sentenced yourself to a case of chronic stress.
One of the most important things you can do is learn to recognize when your stress is out of control and realize that you need some self-care to function at your best.
May be you’ve been skipping meals, grabbing fast food or noshing on junk more often. Or you can’t find the time in your day for a bit of exercise or relaxation.
Fortunately, there are ways to relieve your stress levels. Here are a few strategies to try:
Eat to optimize your health and energy. Regular, nutritious meals will help keep your energy up and your immune system strong so you can better meet the demands on your resources.
Take time to exercise. Studies show that regular, moderate exercise benefits health, reduces stress and contributes to a sense of well-being.
Get adequate sleep. Sleep-deprivation can add to your feelings of stress and depression. Try to maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle to keep your moods steady.
Share your feelings. Talk to friends or a priest, minister or social worker.
Relax. Pray, meditate or try breathing techniques to help calm you.
Get counseling if you need it. If you feel overly stressed or have symptoms of depression, seek help from a psychologist or other mental health professional.
Schedule downtime. Doing things you enjoy can recharge your batteries and ease your stress, so don’t feel guilty. Try to do “small” things—listening to music, stretching, reading a good book—regularly. And schedule larger blocks of time to do things you enjoy, like visiting a local museum, tending a garden or getting together with friends to see a movie.
Get medical checkups. Schedule and keep regular checkups with doctors and dentists. Don’t let your own health deteriorate.
Spend time with friends. Cutting yourself off socially can lead to depression. Smiles and laughter can restore your spirits, and a simple change of scenery often helps.
Ask others for help. Family members, friends and neighbors may be willing to pitch in, too. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Delegate specific tasks, such as doing laundry, shopping for groceries or making drugstore stops, on specific days.
Get respite care. Respite care services provide temporary care, letting you take a much-needed break for a few hours.
Consider a caregiver support group. Share strategies with people who understand your situation, learn about local resources or just have a safe place to “vent.” Check your newspaper for listings or your library for area resources.
Get knowledge. Learning about the medical issues of the person for whom you care can help you anticipate, understand and better cope with their needs.
Be realistic. You have only so much time and energy. Set reasonable goals. And forgive yourself when you can’t satisfy everyone’s needs.
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed or having trouble coping, talk with your healthcare provider. Not only can chronic stress lead to depression, but it can affect your physical health as well. By reducing your stress and taking better care of yourself, you’ll be better equipped physically and emotionally to care for your loved one.
Answer these questions to get a fix on how stress is affecting your health and happiness.
- Am I irritable or short-tempered with the person I care for or with family members?
- Do I cry easily or more often?
- Do I feel rundown or fatigued most of the time?
- Do I have colds that linger on?
- Am I having trouble sleeping?
- Have I stopped making time for fun with friends?
- Do I feel stuck in my routine and in my life?
- Am I having trouble concentrating?
- Do I constantly feel sad?
- Have I lost or gained an unusual amount of weight?
- Am I drinking (alcohol) more? Have I started smoking?
A “yes” response to any of these questions may indicate that you need to act to reduce your stress.