For many of us, caregiving is a very natural part of life and as a result, we don’t actually think of ourselves as caregivers. We may see ourselves as “just” daughters, sons, partners, spouses, etc. simply doing what families, friends, colleagues, and neighbours do for one another. While this very well may be true, the lack of awareness and recognition of caregiving, and of caregivers, is one of the greatest barriers to reducing the negative impact caregiving can have. While caregiving has great meaning and satisfaction for many, we also know that there can be a negative impact. In fact, it seems that an occupational hazard for caregivers is to give at the expense of their own health and wellbeing.
Caregivers often give up sleep and both personal and social time, can feel overwhelmed, and in a word, stressed. What can you do to better cope with stress? Well, there are the following 10 stress management strategies that we all know (and can probably rhyme off!):
- Eat healthy
- Get plenty of sleep
- Maintain a regular exercise routine
- Practice deep breathing
- Use guided imagery and visualization techniques
- Practice yoga
- Get a massage
- Do progressive muscle relaxation
- Listen to music
Notice how the majority of these strategies are body based, which means they are intended to relieve tension within the body. The truth, however, is that the body responds to what is held in the mind. Instead of focusing on the list of 10 strategies above, we want to draw your attention to a strategy for stress management that doesn’t seem to get much attention – addressing our thinking, and more pointedly, our ‘stress thoughts’.
So, what are stressful caregiving thoughts? In essence, they can be put into 2 categories:
- Self-limiting thoughts
- Thoughts which resist reality/what is happening
The bottom line is that our thoughts about the situation/event create as much stress as the situation/event itself. Byron Katie calls this arguing with reality. She wisely also tells us that when we argue with reality, we lose every time!
Explore Your ‘Stress Thoughts’
Think of a recent caregiving situation when you felt stressed. Now, really try to re-create this situation or experience in your mind. Turn your attention to what you were saying (either to yourself or out loud to someone). In particular, notice any “can’t” or “should” or “should not” and “if only” thoughts. Here are some examples:
- “This isn’t fair.”
- “I have to do everything.”
- “It’s not fair. I didn’t sign up for this.”
- “It’s not right that my siblings don’t step up.”
- “Dad should take better care of himself.”
- “Mom should do what the doctor says.”
- “They should downsize.”
- “I can’t possibly take time out for myself.”
Now, notice how you feel in your body when you believe these thoughts. You may feel tightness or clenching. Also, notice how you are feeling emotionally. You may feel defeated, frustrated, angry, etc.
Now, as best you can, take the same situation and imagine some different thoughts. Try thinking thoughts like:
- “Well, it is what it is.”
- “That is how it is.”
- “Well, that is just how ________ is.”
- “This is hard but I can handle it.”
Notice how you feel in your body. How do you feel emotionally? Are there any differences?
Further, notice that whether you accept it or not, the situation is still happening. The situation is still what it is. This is so important to notice. Whether we resist or accept what is happening, it is still happening!
Let’s go back to the 10 stress management strategies listed above. While most of us already know them (know what relieves stress in the body), many of us don’t practice them. More broadly, many of us don’t practice self-care. We don’t take care of ourselves. This is particularly true for caregivers. If you learn to watch your thoughts and really notice what you are saying to yourself, you will likely find the underlying source/reason why you don’t do or don’t do more of what you/we know is good for you.
You can learn to recognize your ‘stress thoughts’ and from there, learn not to listen to them! If you want to learn more about how to examine your thoughts, and specifically, the work of Byron Katie, her website is full of free resources, from worksheets to videos of Katie doing ‘the work’ with people.