"I worry about him constantly,” the 70-year-old woman said during a recent therapy session while fretting about her husband, who is in a nursing home dementia unit. “How do I know he won't get coronavirus there?"
"I can well understand,” I said empathetically, but then added, “As long as we're in this pandemic, I don't think you are going to be able to stop worrying about him.” In my mind I was considering how I could help her not worry less but worry more productively.
Caregivers have plenty to be fearful about nowadays, including contracting the coronavirus, feeling isolated at home, getting food and medications, and coping with financial strain. Those worries are normal and expected; it would be surprising if a caregiver wasn't worrying during this time of crisis. Evolution has equipped human beings with built-in worry capacity for reasons of survival — to fix our attention on pressing problems and then spur us to try to remedy them.
But when the tendency to stew escalates so much during stressful times that worries dominate caregivers’ thoughts, disturb their sleep and detract from their ability to enjoy life, we call it something else: anxiety. Unlike worry, anxiety isn't normal; it's a problem that clouds our thinking and diminishes our abilities to perform at our peak. In its more severe forms, anxiety is debilitating and requires treatments such as medication and psychotherapy.
How can family caregivers use worry productively to better face the pandemic but not cross the line into anxiety? Here are some ideas.
Worry, but don't ruminate
Thinking about worrisome challenges is not a problem; thinking about them constantly is. Ruminating cows chew their cud for hours; likewise, ruminating caregivers chew on the same worrying thoughts again and again, without getting any closer to a solution. The thoughts torment them, especially at bedtime when they can't turn worrying off enough to relax and fall asleep.