Caregivers are hailed as real-life guardian angels who give unconditional love and support to their charges. To observers, their very presence radiates resilience and strength. However, the journey of caregiving is not a simple one and it’s impossible to tabulate the amount of time and effort that is put into the whole process since caregivers are constantly working holistically – giving their all mentally, physically, socially, and emotionally. With all their time occupied with caring for others, it is unfortunately common for caregivers to forget or have no time and capacity to care for themselves. This takes a toll on their health, leading to the development of physical illnesses and psychological disorders (Acton, 2002). It is also found that caregivers who suffer from depression are less likely able to seek help from others than their counterparts without depression (Rabinowitz, Saenz, Thompson, & Gallagher-Thompson, 2011). Just as how important it is for us to ensure our children receive intervention at the earliest, it is the same for caregivers. While they may eventually seek support on their own accord, they need to learn to be aware and reach out before being stretched too thin.
Over the recent years, there has been a growing awareness on the importance of mental health and how we can improve psychological resilience. Since stress plays a huge role in the development of physical illnesses, it is only logical that we manage our stress levels before it can start to affect our physical health (Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, 2010). When it begins affecting us physically, it will be a tremendous obstacle for both caregivers and their loved ones since the caregiver will no longer be fit to continue providing care. Apart from getting sufficient nutrition, rest, and maintaining their physical health by scheduling a check-up every few months, here are some other ways of self-care to ensure a better quality of life for both caregivers and their loved ones.
For some people, the first step might be to practice acceptance. How we emotionally react to negative circumstances may affect our mind and body as we go about our lives. If we consistently and passively focus on stress, causes and its results, it may lead to depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, 2008; Treynor, Gonzalez, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2003). If we keep ruminating on the same negative thoughts in our mind, it will also be difficult to move on from the negative state and be able to provide care to others.
When faced with difficulty, it is good to acknowledge and accept its presence before taking the next course of action to deal with it. It is easier said than done, of course, but saying “I know and I accept it” is greatly empowering and can be worth the effort. When we learn to accept difficulties and develop a strong psychological resilience, we learn to appreciate the positive sides of the circumstances even more (Bravo-Benítez, Pérez-Marfil, Román-Alegre, & Cruz-Quintana, 2019).
At least one hour a day
When we live in a fast-paced, bustling society like Singapore, we tend to forget to step back and have some “me” time every now and then. This can be as simple as spending an hour in a day doing anything you want (this does not include house chores or buying groceries, unless you find peace in those activities!). Whether it involves going out for a walk or staying in and catching up on your favourite series or just sitting down to relax, it will be beneficial to ease your mind. Some even choose to work out since exercising encourages the release of endorphins and causes an increase in the concentration of norepinephrine which improves your body’s response to stress (Hutchinson, 2020). Moreover, it can also increase sleep quality which results in improved mental ability and physical energy that will help in the long run. Caregiving can be a long and exhausting journey – it is crucial to take breaks, so that we can be our optimal selves when caring for others.
Pick up Mindful Breathing
As cliché as it may sound, breathing is crucial to our survival and health. We know our bodies need oxygen to keep it moving, but when we incorporate mindful breathing into our daily lives, it goes a step further than our physical health. The word “mindfulness” has been popping up on many forms of media, but what exactly does it mean?
To be mindful is to be aware of something, especially the present moment. Mindful breathing is breathing with awareness of the breath being taken in and out of the body and having a purpose for each breath. It consists of bringing attention to our cognitive, emotional, and physical experiences while focusing on our breathing to facilitate emotional regulation and having a calmed state of mind (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
Mindful breathing can also be done in conjunction with other calming activities such as meditation and yoga. With the Internet, YouTube tutorials and videos are easily available for anyone interested to watch and learn. Many channels are also managed by actual doctors and professionals who find the time to provide these incredible resources for the world!
Reach Out (to Friends & Support Groups)
Last but not least, learning to open up and share your thoughts, opinions, and emotions with others may be one of the most important aspects of self-care. Support groups are safe spaces for caregivers to share their stories, learn from others, and connect with people who are going through similar experiences so they know they are never truly alone.
Support groups are usually available at hospitals, schools or activity centres where your loved ones would go for classes or training sessions. Sometimes, the hectic schedules of caregivers, especially in difficult times like this when a pandemic is ongoing, can mean that they are unable to leave their homes. In such cases, there are also online support groups on Facebook or other social media platforms that may be helpful.
As mentioned earlier, caregiving is not easy – it takes a lot out of people when they give so much. There will surely be times caregivers feel weak, lost, alone, and wanting to give up. It is natural and understandable to feel these strong emotions, but it is also important to recognize and understand one’s limitations.
There is still much research to do in how society can better promote self-care for caregivers to prevent caregiver burnout. However, we have come a long way in recognizing our caregivers’ plight and understanding how we can work to best manage their mental health before problems manifest itself. It is okay to step back, take a break, or let someone else take the wheel every once in a while. We are only human – we have our own wants and needs. When we share the workload with others, it becomes easier and manageable. Most importantly, we need to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others.
To all the caregivers out there, thank you for everything that you do – whether it is getting up in the morning and going about your day or waking up your loved ones and reminding them of how much they are loved. We hear you and we stand with you!
Written by Alisha.
Acton, G. J. (2002). Health-promoting self-care in family caregivers. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(1), 73-86. doi: 10.1177/01939450222045716
Bravo-Benítez, J., Pérez-Marfil, M. N., Román-Alegre, B., & Cruz-Quintana, F. (2019). Grief experiences in family caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(23), 4821. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16234821
Hutchinson, D. (2019). How nutrition and exercise support mental health and work-life balance. Safety & Health, 2018 (2017), 2016. Retrieved from https://elpasofirewire.com/2020/06/05/how-nutrition-and-exercise-support-mental-health-and-work-life-balance/
Kabat‐Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness‐based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg016
Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(5), 400-424. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00088.x
Rabinowitz, Y. G., Saenz, E. C., Thompson, L. W., & Gallagher-Thompson, D. (2011). Understanding caregiver health behaviors: Depressive symptoms mediate caregiver self-efficacy and health behavior patterns. American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease & Other Dementias, 26(4), 310-316. doi: 10.1177/1533317511410557
Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving. (2010). Averting the caregiving crisis: Why we must act now. http://rosalynncarter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/RCI_Position_Paper100310_Final.pdf
Treynor, W., Gonzalez, R., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Rumination reconsidered: A psychometric analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 27(3), 247-259. doi: 10.1023/A:1023910315561