Burned Out on Caregiving? Take Some Vitamin N!

"Because nature is calming to the mind and uplifting to the mood, it can shift both the caregiver and care recipient into a place where simply being present together feels rewarding."
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While many of us are busy ramping up our doses of vitamins B and D, says Anasuya Basil -- a holistic nutrition coach and practitioner of craniosacral therapy and acupressure -- we are overlooking what is perhaps the most important "vitamin" of all for unplugging and recharging our batteries: N, which stands for nature. Considering that caregivers are especially prone to burnout, and that Basil's "Nurture in Nature" retreats have been successful in rejuvenating caregivers (Bonus: They are half an hour from my house!), I asked Basil to share her wisdom on how to inject a little more N into one's life, especially for those currently in the throes of looking after a loved one with an illness.

Tory Zellick: Why is nature an important component of maintaining wellness?

Anasuya Basil: Our lives today are very different than the lives of our ancestors. They had to master interactions with animals, plants, and changing weather, so as to survive, whereas we need to be skilled at navigating freeways, surfing the Internet, and utilizing technology, so as to function. Even though our lifestyles are very different, the way our bodies and brains work has barely changed over the millenia. Quite simply, the human body is wired to connect with nature. For this reason, when we spend time outdoors, our brains function better, and our moods and health improve.

Frances E. Kuo -- director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois -- evaluated hundreds of studies measuring physiological changes of people spending time in nature and discovered that connecting with nature reduces anxiety, improves impulse control and focus, shortens recovery time after surgery, and enhances immune functioning and blood sugar balance.

In addition, the medical community of Japan has partnered with the government and parks departments, offering a therapy called Shinrin-yoku, or "Forest Bathing." Through this program, participants gather outdoors in state parks and do simple meditation and breath exercises based on Shinto and Buddhist practices. The exercises are designed to open up the senses to the natural surroundings. These programs have proven to lower both blood pressure and cortisol, a stress hormone. Anxiety and depression from overwork are huge problems in Japan, which has the third highest suicide rate [in the developed world]. Forest Bathing has been found to counteract these stress-related problems.

TZ: What are some ways that nature retreats are especially important for caregivers?

AB: Caregivers need to recharge their batteries. If they do not take some "time out" to nourish themselves, they may damage their own health. In addition, if they do not make a point of nurturing themselves, they may burn out and not be of any use to anyone -- including the loved ones for whom they are caring. Nature retreats allow caregivers to deeply rejuvenate and obtain new insights and fresh perspectives. Caregivers can return home revived, with new ideas of how to manage stress and have more fun in their daily lives.

TZ: Are there particular advantages to experiencing nature in a group setting?

AB: Given that our society does not value relaxing in nature as much as it does being "productive" at work or home, we may have a hard time allowing ourselves to release into the nature experience on our own. The process is much easier with a supportive group, especially considering that we are social creatures. When we watch other people drink in nature, we come to understand that it is both acceptable and desirable for us to do the same.

TZ: Why do you emphasize creativity exercises at your nature retreats?

AB: The Society for Arts in Healthcare estimates that [about] half of American hospitals have creative arts programs in place, serving patients such as children with cancer, women with diabetes, adults with Multiple Sclerosis, and so on. Research indicates that participants experience a decrease in stress and anxiety and an increase in numerous positive emotions. When we engage in the creative process, we enter a mental state where worries fade into the background. We experience a sense of "flow," as we focus on the creation emerging from our hands.

Not only is personal self-expression a great stress reliever, but anyone can be creative. Everyone has something to say! So at my retreats, we take photographs or write poems, so as to capture moments of beauty or places of interest -- which can be as simple as a river sparkling in the sun, a squirrel eating a nut, or a fellow retreat participant smiling under a tree. We also write in journals, to release our inner thoughts, and we create scrapbooks and collages, using decorative tools like rubber stamps.

All of these creative endeavors come together in the final product of retreat journals, which participants take home. Not only do these journals serve as an ongoing reminder to take time out and nurture oneself, but they serve as a boost to self-esteem. People feel proud to hold something they made with their own hands, no matter how small a work it may be.

TZ: Many caregivers find it difficult to take time out for a retreat. What are three quick-fix ways that caregivers can get a nature boost or get creative on their own?

AB: One practice is to set your phone timer to 15 minutes, then walk outside with a pad of paper and a pen. Take notes on anything that looks, sounds, smells, or feels either beautiful or interesting to you. When you come inside, take a few minutes to type out the notes, in the closest you can get to "poetry" form. Print out the document and post it where you can see it, so that it serves as a reminder of your experience.

Another practice is to find a nature "sit-spot." This is a very convenient outdoor place, such as a tree stump in your backyard, which you visit on a regular basis, for anywhere between ten minutes to one hour at a time. This spot becomes your home in nature, where you relax and notice the birds, clouds, moon, insects, and animals.

A third practice is to make handmade cards. These can be completed in a short amount of time, with a few simple supplies. Use a couple of rubber stamps and inkpads, as well as colored and patterned papers. You can keep the cards simple or embellish them with buttons, ribbons, and cut-out images from magazines. Don't be overly-concerned with the end result. Instead, focus on the colors, textures, and shapes that feel good to you. Make it a game you play with your senses! The added benefit, of course, is that you'll have a supply of cards to give to your loved ones, for any occasion.

TZ: What are some ways that caregivers can include care recipients in nature outings and creative projects, taking into consideration the limitations and special needs associated with an illness?

AB: Drive to a handicapped-accessible park, and go for a slow and gentle walk through nature, as far as your loved one can move comfortably. If walking is too challenging, you simply can sit at a bench or in a wheelchair, at a pretty outdoor spot. If it is difficult for your loved one to be outdoors, drive to a beautiful nature setting and stay in the car -- for example, in a beach parking lot facing the ocean. If your loved one is unable to leave the bed, move that bed as close as possible to the window, and leave it open for as long as is tolerable. Fresh air is rejuvenating. In addition, you can photograph and videotape your own jaunts in nature, then have some quality time sharing these images with your loved one.

TZ: How might spending time together in nature or in a creative endeavor improve the quality of relationship between caregivers and care recipients?

AB: Spending time together outside, simply noticing simple wonders of nature, can take the pressure off talking and remove the focus away from illness or disability. Because nature is calming to the mind and uplifting to the mood, it can shift both the caregiver and care recipient into a place where simply being present together feels rewarding.

TZ: How have nature and creativity helped you with your own life?

When I was a little girl, my mother showed me how to be comfortable in nature, and she taught me to notice the plants and animals. Throughout my childhood, I returned to nature whenever I needed some peace and solace. During that time in my life, I also loved to draw, paint, and make things. So as an adult going through difficulties, such as a painful divorce, I consciously have made an effort not only to spend time outdoors but also to pursue creative hobbies. Doing so has made a huge difference in my life -- keeping me balanced, grounded, and joyful through life's ups and downs.

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