Self-Care for the Caregiver

By Connor Wills M.Ed, LAC

As we approach the surreal one year milestone since the Covid-19 pandemic began, many emotions undoubtedly rise about how the last twelve months have felt both personally and for those we care about. From grief and loss to stress and anxiety, change and growth, the past year has been transformative in many unexpected ways. A common theme reminiscent of the past year is what a blur things have been; how mundane days blend together with our own emotions often being overlooked or even repressed in order to keep pressing forward as we try to stay strong. In times of trouble we tend to lean on each other and with that comes the innate pressure to “stay strong” by neglecting our own emotions and overall self-care. Many of us can relate to putting on “a face” at times for other people, whether it be our children or other family members, a partner, or folks in our professional lives. Regardless of profession or age, it is as if all of us have, in one way or another, adopted the role of a caregiver during this unprecedented year.

Taking time to reflect and reset is anything but selfish and in no way a sign of weakness or inefficiency as a human being. Even the most perfectly engineered high-performance automobile will eventually run out of fuel, break down, or crash if the pedal is floored without letting up and refueling occasionally. We as humans are no different; despite our incredible ability to perform at high speeds and navigate the complex road of life, we too need to allow ourselves to refuel periodically. This is especially critical in the present while so many of us have had to take on new levels of caregiving responsibility over the past twelve months whether for family, friends, or in our professional roles. The following are three best practices to maintain quality self-care in order to be the best we can for those who matter most in our lives.

Sleep Hygiene

Without getting our daily rest, we cannot possibly begin to meet each new day and new caregiving challenges as our best selves. Consciously striving to get a healthy night’s sleep is crucial before all other self-care strategies, otherwise we are truly “running on empty.” The National Sleep Foundation advises that healthy adults require seven to nine hours of sleep per night for optimal rest and rejuvenation. Getting enough sleep impacts both physical and mental health and boosts our immune systems. Avoid the blue light which exudes from electronic devices like cell phones and tablets at least one hour before your scheduled bed time and try to avoid eating food two hours before sleep as digestion creates energy in the body and can lead to more wakefulness. Try to maintain some degree of consistency with respect to the time you fall asleep each night so that your body can fall into a natural rhythm. For those of us who struggle to fall asleep, discussing the appropriateness of a natural supplement such as melatonin with your medical doctor is encouraged.

Mindfulness-Based Meditation

In 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn created the now famous Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts. This endeavor is largely credited with marrying the eastern philosophy of zen meditation with the rigorous scientific method of western medicine. Kabat-Zinn’s work at UMass opened the floodgates which would become over 40 years of supported research that proves how impactful a regular meditation practice is on our physical and mental health. Harvard University research has found that on average, the human mind wanders 47% of the time throughout any given day during this hustle bustle society of ours. If this statistic is surprising, bear in mind how little we take note of the over 20,000 breaths we take each and every day. An imperative aspect of self-care is being able to take a few moments per day to break from the routine and just be present with ourselves. Research proves that a regular meditative practice can significantly reduce stress, anxiousness, sadness, compulsive behaviors, and high blood pressure. By focusing purely on our inhales and exhales, we are able to take a “vacation” from our minds for a few moments as we sit in pure presence. Plenty of guided meditations can be found on platforms such as Youtube and Spotify, and new phone applications are coming out constantly to meet the growing popularity of meditation in our culture. I recommend my personal favorite meditation app called “Insight Timer” based on it’s user friendly interface and the ability to personalize options which fit best with your practice.

Reconnecting with Forgotten Interests

During the pandemic, many folks have found themselves uncovering long-neglected interests that they have not found the time to enjoy for years. Think back to when you felt “less busy” and how you spent your down time back then. Perhaps you loved to collect certain items, craft, or engage in something artistic on a regular basis. Maybe you played a sport, enjoyed learning another language, or took up an instrument for a time. Whatever it may have been, find ways to incorporate this hobby or activity which you have drifted away from as life got busy or you grew older. You may find that your partner or children will love engaging in this rediscovered interest with you; how beautiful a thing it is to spark a new shared interest to bond over with someone you care about! If you can’t come up with anything for yourself, try asking friends and family what interests they may have taken up during this pandemic. From knitting to researching family history or a regular home workout routine, the opportunities for rediscovering loved interests or new enjoyments are virtually limitless.

It is often said that “we cannot pour from an empty cup.” This is not unlike how prior to takeoff, an airline flight crew advised to place one’s own oxygen mask on before assisting the person next to you. Whether you are working on the front lines of the pandemic as a nurse or other medical professional, a teacher meeting the challenges of virtual instruction, or taking care of your own parents or children, it is important to bear in mind how critical our own self-care is in the process of caregiving. In order to serve others as best we can, we must first ensure that we show up as our best selves every day.