By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Caring for elderly parents or sick family members is unquestionably stressful. According to the American Psychological Association’s most recent annual stress survey (2011), caregivers report higher levels of stress than other people. Although care giving is often done as a labor of love, family tensions can make it that much more challenging.
If you take care of the health or welfare of family, it’s essential that you also take care of yourself. The reality is that you must ‘fill your tank’ in order to have the energy, focus, and inner resources to tend to others for the long haul. But it’s not enough to know it; you need to keep it on your list of to-dos each and every day.
To accomplish this, you must be clear about how you take care of you. So, consider the following:
Maintain a healthy lifestyle. You probably understand that this includes eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular exercise. The question is: do you really do this? If you don’t but are convinced that a healthy lifestyle will serve you well, then commit to it. Choose one thing to focus on at a time and seriously approach work to change your habits.
Make fun and fulfillment a regular part of your life. Doing enjoyable and fulfilling activities will enhance your life and help you to let go of stress and tension. This will not only make you a happier person, but it will also help you to be better at tending to loved ones.
Know your own coping strategies. Pay attention to whether you use healthy or unhealthy ways of coping. If your coping styles are healthy (e.g. going for a jog, talking with supportive friends), acknowledge this strength and keep it up. If you cope with unhealthy behaviors (e.g. smoking, drinking, emotional eating), then consider finding healthier ways to cope.
Maintain a support system. One of the best ways to manage stress is to surround yourself with supportive family and friends. They are an invaluable resource. Take the time to talk with them about important issues, chat about lighter matters, and just enjoy their company.
Also, let them help you in practical ways. Ask them to babysit, call you at times when you need it, or give you some relief from your caretaking duties, if possible. Rather than burdening them, you are probably helping them to feel good that they can be helpful. Before you cast this suggestion aside, consider this: Wouldn’t you feel good about helping out an over-stressed friend?
Remember: You are only human. As much as you might want to do it all, you can only do so much. So, prioritize, forego doing unimportant tasks, and share the responsibility of caretaking or anything else that goes into your day.
Remember: This, too, shall pass. When it all gets to be too much, which will happen sometimes, remind yourself that it hasn’t always been this difficult and won’t always be. Keeping the struggles in perspective in this way can help you make it through the moment and the day.
When necessary, seek professional help. It’s time to do this if you are unable to get yourself to do or maintain any of the above, or you feel chronically overwhelmed. Therapists can provide you with necessary support, help you find appropriate resources, and work with you to change unhealthy behaviors.
Hopefully, along with everything you do to manage your stress, you will feel good about being a caregiver. This might come from the deepened relationship you have with the one who needs your help. Or, it might come from knowing that you are doing the right thing. In either case, being a caregiver can provide a sense of meaning and fulfillment that you can feel good about.
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