Stress Busters for Caregivers

Before the daily demands of caregiving exact a toll on your well-being, consider these techniques to regroup and unwind.

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- Posted on Jun 7, 2021

Young man meditating in the morning; Getty Images

Caregiver stress can be obvious or subtle, but regardless of how it makes itself known, you do yourself no favors by ignoring the signs. Your physical and mental health are at risk if you’re experiencing even one symptom from among this miserable mélange: constant worry, anger at the loved one you care for, social withdrawal, depression or apathy, sleeping too little or too much, irritability, lack of concentration, weight gain or loss, lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed, alcohol or drug abuse or feelings of wanting to hurt yourself.

When you recognize that the demands of family caregiving are weighing too heavily on you, it’s important to take immediate steps to defuse before you burn out. The following stress busters can work wonders with very little effort:

Focus your breath.

Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm’s range of motion, which heightens tension and anxiety. When you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs and the lower belly rises. This full exchange of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure. In the 1970s, Harvard Medical School cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson developed a technique known as the relaxation response to counter the normal stress response to threatening situations. One way to evoke the relaxation response is through breath focus. Take long, slow, deep breaths, and as you do so, gently disengage your mind from distracting thoughts and sensations. Other ways to quell your stress through the relaxation response include repetitive prayer, guided imagery and yoga, tai chi and qigong.

Practice gratitude.

Set aside a little time each day to reflect on events, people or even attributes of your own that you’re grateful for. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis, and a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude, recommended daily journaling to remember gifts, grace, benefits and things you enjoy. “Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” Emmons said. “It’s impossible to feel envious and grateful at the same time.” Gratitude is related to 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Practicing gratitude has a host of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, improving immune function and reducing lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders.

Head to a natural space.

Spending time in a natural environment can benefit mental health, according to research. This goes not only for greenspaces but for other restorative spots like monasteries and museums. Exposure to extraordinary natural environments like spectacular mountains or waterfalls—even if viewed via a photo slideshow— can have even more pronounced positive effects on mood, one study has shown. But you don’t have to wander far afield to commune with nature. If you have a lawn, mowing it can improve your mood. Or you might simply walk by someone else’s yard while they do all the work. Several years ago, University of Queensland researchers developed an “eau de grass spray” based on scientific proof that when grasses and green leaves are cut, at least five chemicals containing stress-relieving properties are released. But getting out anywhere to stretch your legs offers the stress-reducing benefits of exercise. Physical activity boosts feel-good endorphins and can take your mind off what’s troubling you.

Get an aromatherapy lift.

A variety of concentrated plant extracts have been found to reduce anxiety and stress. Smelling essential oils like lavender, yuzu and bergamot can have a soothing effect. It’s best to use them sparingly and to choose organic, minimally processed oils. Explore how you might benefit from aromatherapy here.

Pet your pet.

Snuggle up with your furry family member. Research has shown that interacting with animals can lower cortisol levels, as well as blood pressure. The unconditional love you give to and receive from a pet can also reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support and boost mood.

Try your hand at art.

Expressing yourself visually can have a calming effect. Drexel University researchers invited 39 adults to participate in 45 minutes of art-making using materials of their choosing to create any work they desired. Just under half of the study participants had limited experience in making art. The researchers found that 75 percent of the participants’ cortisol levels lowered during the 45-minute period. There was no correlation between past art experience and lower cortisol levels.

Make lists.

Effective time management can make a day less overwhelming, and putting your tasks on paper is one of the best ways to stay organized. Allen Elkin, author of Stress Management for Dummies, suggested making three lists: a master to-do, a will-do-today and a will-do-later. Among his tips: don’t make a list so long that it becomes unwieldy, don’t schedule the “guaranteed to happen” stuff and tackle a more difficult high-priority task first. Learn more of Elkin’s suggestions on making lists that match your style and personality.

Meditate.

Regardless of where you are or what’s happening in the midst of your busy day, you can clear information overload and still your mind using simple meditation techniques. They’re easy to learn and practice on your own. Mindfulness can do much to manage stress, reduce negative emotions and increase patience and tolerance. Learn more about meditation, including easy, everyday ways to practice this approach to stress-reduction and relaxation.

Maintain connections.

It can do a world of good to meet up with a friend or family member who can provide nonjudgmental emotional support. Even a phone call can make a difference. When you set aside a regular time for this—once a week or whatever works—it can give you something to look forward to. Joining a support group can also bring new connections with people who understand what you’re going through as a caregiver.

Explore resources.

An array of resources are available to help you cope with caregiving, including home health services, adult day care, private care aides and caregiver support services. It’s important to seek medical attention if you’re suffering from stress or depression. The Eldercare Locator’s Caregiver Corner is an excellent clearinghouse for information.

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