En español | A few weeks after my husband was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and was lying in a coma with a head injury at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, I received a massage gift certificate from a girlfriend. The prospect of someone kneading my cement-like muscles was appealing. But the thought of leaving the hospital to do something for myself made me anxious. What if Bob woke up from his coma while I was gone? What if he was looking for me and I was at a spa? It felt wrong to be enjoying something so much when the person I loved most was lying in pain with half his skull removed. The whole experience felt self-indulgent.
My sister finally pushed me out the door, and I spent the entire hour worried about Bob, intermittently weeping at the kindness of this stranger's touch. I remember wearing my wedding ring on a chain and telling the massage therapist that I absolutely couldn't take it off, certain that that would jinx Bob's recovery.
Reduce stress, increase wellness
Most caregivers I know have a complicated relationship with self-care. We keep a polite smile on when someone (usually not actively caregiving) tells us, “Make sure you take care of yourself, too!” Sure. Of course. Easier said than done.
So how do you find ways to incorporate very specific actions and physical wellness into your day when so much of these activities revolve around someone else? I asked my own massage therapist and health guru, Michele Cappellano, of Pocono Pines, Pennsylvania, to share exercises and other actions that all caregivers can follow to reduce stress and promote overall wellness, especially if it is more difficult to get out of the house.
"The first thing you have to do is be realistic with yourself when it comes to taking good physical care,” Cappellano advises. “If you set the goals too high, you will only be discouraged."
Cappellano suggests thinking about what skills you already have in your wheelhouse and what kinds of activities you will be most likely to follow through with. You also need to convince yourself that you deserve the care (as I was unable to do during that massage) and be aware that this act will take effort.
Though every caregiving situation is different, during the months after my husband returned home from the ICU, the early mornings were sacred for me. If I could get a tiny slice of time before everyone woke up, I felt like I had a bit of a leg up on the day. That precious me time was often the small difference between a decent day and one in which I felt continually under water. I set the alarm daily to give me that critical buffer. Sometimes it was as simple as drinking my coffee alone and reading emails. Other times, I would take a walk as the sun rose. When I could, I'd make up for exhaustion during the day with a cat nap or even just closing my eyes on the couch.
The magic of morning
Cappellano also believes in the importance of jump-starting the day with a morning routine. Here are a couple of her suggestions.
- If possible, wake up 20 minutes before you start your day and carve this time out solely for you — whether you use it for journaling, reading the news, meditating or doing something more active, like stretching.
- Get your coffee, tea or hot lemon water started. Hydration after a night's sleep is key. Lemon water is also good for vitamin C, or opt for a sugarless electrolyte (they come in many flavors).
Include your loved one in self-care
Self-care doesn't have to exclude the person you're looking after. “Ask yourself how you might execute some of these self-care routines together,” Capellano says. “The next step is to make a plan.” She recommends the following few tweaks that can help change your outlook on the day and improve your well-being.
- Do some simple stretches, touching toes, bending over with the back of a chair. You can even stretch in the bathtub when your muscles are warmed up. An elastic stretch band is a good way to extend your reach.
- Music makes us all happier and gets our toes tapping. Do some small dance steps in the house to your favorite song, or grab your partner for some ballroom dancing, which brings up your heart rate in a healthy way.
- Take a seven-minute Epsom-salt bath. It really does relax you.
- Set up a diffuser with orange, lemon or your favorite scent. Elevating your sense of smell can lift your spirits.
- Lie on the floor and invert your legs against the wall for 10 minutes. If possible, put a bolster or pillow under your back to open your chest area and relax your shoulders.
- When watching TV or working on the computer, put a tennis ball under your hamstring or behind your shoulder blades.
- Turn off the news after an hour and watch something you love that is educational or funny, or read a book.
Cappellano offers some simple ways you can physically decrease stress and tension without leaving the house.
- A kinesiology technique called emotional stress release can be done anywhere to relieve pain, headaches and clear out systems in the head and intestines. There are two points on our forehead on the prominences that, when lightly held with three fingers of each hand, can have a calming effect. Gently press on these points and breathe; this will open your mind up to receptive, rather than protective, responses.
- Another quick move to calm and relax is to locate the fleshy depression just beyond where the thumb and forefinger meet in the V shape. Firmly press your other thumb and forefinger into that flesh and release.
Use your breath
Breath brings oxygen into the body, and there is much science around the benefits of breathing exercise for wellness. Positional therapist Nancy McLoughlin, of Tarrytown, New York, teaches clients to use breathing to find calm.
- Slowly inhale to the count of 4, and then exhale slowly to 4. Continue this pattern and see if you can stretch the time longer. “This begins to calm the nervous system even after only three repetitions,” McLoughlin explains.
- Breath of Fire is a yoga move that can reduce anxiety and stress. Lie in bed and put two fingers against one nostril and your thumb on the other. Block off one nostril and breathe in deeply. Then close that nostril and breathe out through the other. Continue alternating.
- McLoughlin also reminds us that the simple act of smiling, using those small muscles to lift the face, can connect to the neurology of the nervous system and play a role in mood. It's the old “fake-it-till-you-make-it philosophy,” she says. “If you can't find something to smile about, then smile at yourself in the mirror until you get used to the feeling."
"No matter where you are in life, every action you take has a compound effect on your long-term health overall. Small steps make for long-lasting changes,” Cappellano says.