When a beleaguered family caregiver comes to me for counseling, I ask, "How do you cope with stress?" But what I really mean is, "How are you handling change?" The amount of stress that caregivers feel has everything to do with how well they adapt to age- or illness-related changes big ("my dad has been falling a lot") and small ("I forgot to pick up Mom's blood pressure medicine"). Generally speaking, more change — crises piled atop crises — means more stress, and a caregiver who sleeps poorly, tires easily and snaps with irritation at others.
According to the 2015 National Alliance for Caregiving/AARP Caregiving in America report, nearly half of all family caregivers are "somewhat stressed" and more than a third are "highly stressed." If you're one of them, you need to fight change with change.
As the Serenity Prayer suggests, the key is to have the courage to take whatever steps are possible to transform the caregiving situation. That could mean actually changing your loved one's condition by, say, finding a new doctor and more effective medical treatments, or hiring a more attentive home health aide to provide greater support.
But we also have to accept that there are many things about the caregiving situation we can't change. Then managing stress comes down to modifying our reactions. We can do this many ways. When we improve our sleep, we increase our capacity for patience. When we engage in more physical exercise, we release endorphins into our bloodstreams and reduce our tendencies to become anxious and depressed. When we reach out to others for help, we feel less panic-stricken and alone.
In our new book, AARP Meditations for Caregivers, we also suggest several types of mindfulness practices to decrease the intensity of our emotional reactions to change. The term "mindfulness" doesn't mean distracting ourselves from the suffering around us. Instead, it involves using steady, rhythmical breathing and focused concentration to help us become more aware of, but less reactive to, that suffering.
Different caregivers may respond to different mindfulness practices. A few to try:
Healing breaths. As you sit quietly in a comfortable position, count your breaths from 1 to 10, and repeat, breathing deeply and evenly while trying to remain focused on the present moment. Try not to get frustrated if your mind begins to drift, just ease it back on track. With practice you will be able to better still your thoughts.
Visualization. For many caregivers in my psychology practice, just sitting and breathing feels awkward and uncomfortable, especially at first. For many of them, I recommend they try deep and even breathing for five or 10 minutes while visualizing a favorite relaxing scene — lying on the beach on a summer's day or walking through a cool, tree-shaded glen. The power of those visual scenes to engage the mind provides a kind of mental vacation. Many say they emerge from these reveries feeling replenished and refreshed.
Walkabout. Some caregivers are simply too antsy to sit, breathe and visualize. They need a more active way to relax. For them, I suggest a walking meditation — literally, to take a trek in the neighborhood. But this is not just any idle stroll. It means breathing deeply while focusing intently on the sensations you're experiencing — the smell of clipped grass, a dog's bark, a slightly swaying branch. The more deeply you can immerse yourself in the present, the lighter and more buoyant you will feel when you return home.
Creative act. Artists have long known that the deep concentration that comes with creative activity can produce a kind of high afterward. We all have our own creative outlets. When I write articles such as this one, I breathe deeply and lose myself in finding the proper phrases with the right sounds and meanings on the page. This is my mindfulness. Take time for your own, and you are likely to feel renewed and more calm.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.