Managing Stress When You're a Caregiver

Caregiving is never an easy undertaking, but if you thoughtfully and heartfully manage the stress that can come with it -- or in making decisions around it -- you can actually enjoy the honor that it is to help that special someone who needs you now more than ever.
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By Deborah Rozman

About 34 million Americans provide care to older adults, 9 million of them assisting someone with dementia. Assisting those with basics needs through a prolonged incapacitation is both mentally and physically stressful. About three-fourths of caregivers are women, usually a wife or adult daughter, and many studies show female caregivers suffer more anxiety and depression from the emotional stress of caregiving than males do. Caregivers may also have increased blood pressure and insulin levels, be immunocompromised and at increased risk for heart disease. Elderly spousal caregivers have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than non-caregivers of the same age. Family caregivers experiencing extreme stress have been shown to age prematurely. This level of stress can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver's life.

You may love the person you're caring for dearly, but the job of caregiving can be so relentlessly taxing that burnout is a real concern. If you find yourself in the position of helping a family member in need, it's important for your own well-being and theirs that you pay attention to symptoms of too much stress: mental overload, emotional and physical exhaustion, feeling of lack of connection with others, less regard for the person you're caring for or decreased self-worth. Any of these can affect the quality of your caregiving, impair your relationships and hurt your health. Here are some HeartMath tips for getting yourself back on track:

  1. Ask for help. Get support from other family members or social services. It can be hard to let others help with sensitive tasks. You may feel guilty, but you can't do your loved one any good if you're out of commission. Respite care is available in every community. Call the Eldercare Hotline at 800-677-1116 to help you get local assistance.

  • Take good care of yourself. Your own health is a priority right now. Maintain a healthy diet, get sufficient exercise, and talk to your health professional about taking immune-boosting supplements. Exercising regularly and getting enough quality sleep is crucial to reducing stress and giving you the energy and wellness your big job requires.
  • Learn HeartMath's "Go to Neutral" technique. 1) When emotional triggers come up, take a timeout in the heart so that you can temporarily disengage from your thoughts and feelings -- especially stressful ones. 2) Shift your focus to the area around your heart. Now feel your breath coming in through your heart and out through your solar plexus (stomach area). 3) Tell yourself "Go to Neutral" and not to go one way or the other in your thoughts or feelings about the issue. Hold to Neutral until your emotions and your perceptions ease up. There you can ask yourself questions like, "What if it's not like I'm thinking it is?" "What if there's something I don't know?" "What if I really don't know?" This opens up new possibilities and lets your wise self talk to your disturbed self. Practice this technique at least a dozen times to build your "neutral muscle."
  • Practice appreciation and gratitude as a default habit in your life.Focusing on positive feelings and attitudes activate the body's biochemical systems that help to diminish stress and stabilize your psyche. Try HeartMath's emWave 2 or Inner Balance app, our award-winning stress-busting tools. Using this portable feedback device to get into heart coherence, you can transform tension into relaxation and clarity.
  • When my father got congestive heart failure, my parents wanted to move into an assisted living center near me on the West Coast and have me take care of them. My brother on the East Coast was only working part-time and really wanted our parents to move out there near him and let him do the caregiving. Their grandkids were there, too. It was a stressful time trying to make the right decision for all of us. So I went to my heart and used some of the HeartMath tools to get clarity on what I should do. I knew that I would not be able to give them as much time as they would need. I didn't want to disappoint them because we were so close, but it was obvious that they would get more care with my brother. It would be best for them. I told them how I sincerely felt and, while they were disappointed, they went east, found a great assisted living place near my brother and were very happy. Dad passed away three years later. Mom stayed on and eventually needed an in-house aide within the assisted living facility. It was so clear that we had made the right decision. If I hadn't used my tools to get aligned and clear on what was best for all of us, I would've caved and created a lot of unnecessary stress for myself and them.

    Caregiving is never an easy undertaking, but if you thoughtfully and heartfully manage the stress that can come with it -- or in making decisions around it -- you can actually enjoy the honor that it is to help that special someone who needs you now more than ever.

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    debbie Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., is president and CEO of HeartMath LLC, located in Boulder Creek, Calif. HeartMath provides scientifically-validated and market-validated tools and technologies that activate the intelligence and power of the heart to dramatically reduce stress while empowering health, performance and behavioral change in individuals and organizations. HeartMath's award winning emWave® technologies monitor and provide real time feedback on heart rhythm (HRV) coherence levels, an important indicator of mental and emotional state. HeartMath also offers training and certification programs for organizations, health professionals and coaches, and a self-paced online personal development program called HeartMastery for individuals.

    Dr. Rozman has been a psychologist in research and practice, entrepreneur and business executive for over 30 years. She was founding executive director of the Institute of HeartMath, and now serves on the Institute's Scientific Advisory Board and Global Coherence Initiative Steering Committee. She is co-author with HeartMath founder Doc Childre of the Transforming series of books (New Harbinger Publications): Transforming Anger, Transforming Stress, Transforming Anxiety and Transforming Depression. She is a key spokesperson on heart intelligence and the role of the heart in stress management, performance and wellness.