This instruction is regularly given during a pre-flight safety briefing: “During a change in cabin pressure, secure your oxygen mask before helping others, even your own children.”
Why would such counterintuitive advice be given? Because you won’t be able to help anyone if you pass out first.
This piece of advice not only applies to passengers but caregivers as well. Caregivers are people who are constantly caring for someone with an illness, injury, or disability and are “on call” almost all the time. This leaves them little time or energy for themselves, other family members or friends, or personal occupation and hobbies.
The amount of care your loved one needs may leave you feeling overburdened. Your caregiving role could last for years or decades, and the emotional toll may accumulate over time. It can be even more challenging for caregivers if your loved one is unlikely to fully recover or deteriorates in spite of your best efforts.
Unmanaged caregiving stress can have a negative impact on your health, relationships, and mental wellbeing, eventually resulting in burnout – a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. When that happens, both you and the person you’re caring for suffers.
Are you stressed?
Caregiver stress can manifest in many ways. You may feel frustrated, irritated and angry one moment and then helpless, overwhelmed and alone the next. To cope with the stress, some may indulge in unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking or overeating.
Your well-being may be affected by too little sleep, or gain or loss of weight. You may suffer from headaches, body aches or feel exhausted most of the time. You may also lose interest in activities that you used to bring you joy.
Here are some tips to help you manage caregiver stress:
1. Stay mentally well
When faced with challenges of caring for your loved ones, you may ask “why?”, as you try to make sense of the situation. Instead of spending energy dwelling on things you can’t change and for which there are no clear answers, learn to accept the situation and find peace in it.
Caregiving should not become your entire existence. Make time for things that are meaningful to you such as family, religion, hobbies, or work. Your mental well-being should be a key priority in your caregiving journey.
As a busy caregiver, you may feel that leisure time is something you can’t afford. But you must make time for it because it benefits not only yourself but the person you are caring for. You may end up accomplishing less in the long term if you don’t routinely take time out to unwind and rejuvenate. Taking time out helps you feel more energised and ready to get back to your caregiving role.
2. Don’t do it all alone
Taking on all of the responsibilities of caregiving without help or regular breaks is a recipe for caregiver burnout. Consider respite care by enlisting friends, family, volunteers or paid help to care for your loved one so you can take a well-deserved break regularly. You can also explore day care centres and short-term nursing home placements for respite.
You don’t have to be the person doing everything for your loved one. Give others the chance to contribute their time and resources. Distribute the caregiving load as evenly as possible. For instance, someone can bring your loved one for medical appointments, while another can shop for groceries.
Have on hand a list of tasks which you can delegate when someone offers help. Caregivers must be ready to give up control at times. If you micromanage or insist on doing things your way, people will less likely be able to help you.
3. Your health matters
It’s easy to overlook your own health in the midst of a busy caregiving schedule. To properly care for a member of your family, you must remain physically healthy yourself.
Regular exercise is an effective mood booster and stress reliever. Exercise increases your energy levels and combats chronic fatigue. You can also improve your emotional wellbeing by practising relaxation techniques on a regular basis. Even a short time of exercise or relaxation in the middle of a stressful day may help you feel recharged instantly.
You need sustained energy from nutritious foods so be sure to eat a balanced diet which includes healthy fats like fish and nuts alongside fresh fruit, vegetables and lean protein. Cut down on sugar and caffeine, which gives only short energy boosts.
Cutting back on sleep for your caregiving duties is counterproductive. It is important to get enough sleep as the lack of sleep will affect your mood, energy, productivity and ability to handle stress.
4. Find support
All caregivers should be part of a community. It is important for your mental wellbeing to be part of a caregiver support group where you can share your struggles, find mutual support and practical solutions among others facing similar challenges. The most significant benefit of being part of a support network is realising that “you are not alone in this journey”.
Remember the best care you can give to your loved one is the care for yourself!