A Caregiver’s Guide to Staying Happy

Whether you’re caring for a spouse, a child, an aging parent, a sick friend or a teenager with a broken leg, you may find your stress level is on the rise. Symptoms of stress can include trouble sleeping, an inability to stay focused and forgetting your appointments. You also may find you’re short-tempered with family or uninterested in hobbies that usually bring you pleasure.

Caregiving produces a variety of emotions—you may feel completely responsible for providing all the caregiving, you may feel guilty because you think you are not doing enough, and so on. It is important to recognize that you will need much support during this time and to begin allowing yourself not only to accept help but to look for ways to attend to your own needs.

Our world today is busy enough, but when you add in the demands of being a caregiver, you may find that you’re losing your perspective and emotional balance.

What Is Stress?

Stress is our body’s natural and automatic response to a perceived threat. When our brain perceives a potential threat or danger—such as a near-miss traffic incident—our bodies release stress hormones. This triggers the classic “fight or flight” response: your muscles tense, your heart pounds, you breathe more quickly. This survival mechanism evolved to help humans react quickly to life-or-death situations.

But sometimes the body will replicate a stress response simply due to the circumstances of your daily life—and a caregiver is in a perfect situation to experience long-term stress. My patients who are caregivers often describe their role as exhausting, overwhelming, tedious and an emotional minefield.

Besides being extremely challenging, living with chronic stress is also unhealthy. Over time, stress can lead to physical issues such as high blood pressure, trouble sleeping, teeth grinding and a weakened immune system. Potential psychological issues include anxiety, panic disorders and depression.

Can I Alleviate My Stress?

Yes, fortunately, you often can take steps to lessen the stress that comes with being a caregiver. For starters, it helps to recognize what you can and can’t change.

Most likely, you cannot change the health of the person you are caring for. It also may be difficult to change the financial situation, how friends or family members respond, a difficult boss at your work and other external factors. I help my patients tease out these external stressors and find effective ways to lower their emotional impact.

On the other hand, you can control your internal stressors: the thoughts and beliefs we all have about ourselves, our worries, our judgments and so on. These internal ruminations are the stressors that give us the most trouble—the ones that keep us up at night or make us feel out of control, helpless, hopeless, uneasy or nervous.

Here are some ways to help you regain some control and calm in your life as a caregiver:

  • Counter negative thoughts and give yourself the credit you deserve. If you’re repeatedly thinking, “I’m not doing enough for mom/my uncle/my friend,” take note of all that you are doing. Write it down! It’s probably a pretty impressive list. Keep it nearby to help you steer your thoughts to something positive and realistic.
  • Let go of controlling others and find the help you need. Are you frustrated or angry that a sibling or a doctor hasn’t helped in the way you needed? Remember that you can’t control how others behave, but you do have options! Be sure that you are asking clearly for help. Be realistic, specific and as simple as possible. Accept the help you do get without judging it, and if necessary, seek other team members who better fit your situation.
  • Give yourself some restorative, quiet time. When was the last time you sat quietly, without television or other distractions on, and with no activity other than just being alone in the present? Part of my practice is to help people learn to “be still.” This gives your mind and body a much-needed break. Set aside 10–20 minutes. Choose a quiet place where you know you won’t be interrupted. Turn off phones and other devices. Be gentle with yourself: it can take practice to remember how to slow your thoughts. You might try simply listening and labeling ambient sounds: “door closing … a bird … airplane … my breath … traffic” and so forth.
  • Get physical. Try to schedule in exercise such as yoga, walking or a dance class. A regular workout releases feel-good hormones, generates energy and improves circulation.

Finally, be sure you have the personal support you need. A good friend who can listen or get you outside for a stroll can be invaluable. Consider making an appointment with a behavioral therapist. Depending on my patient’s needs, I often employ tools such as mindfulness or guided imagery, in addition to thoughtful listening and conversation. One-on-one time with a professional ensures you get guidance and support that’s geared to you and your situation.