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Why Helping Other Caregivers May Make You Happier

The Golden Rule, Karma, whatever you want to call it—"doing unto others as you would have done to you" is one of the most-used-clichés.

But, as it turns out, this ancient advice might have a truly legitimate scientific basis. Psychologists have dubbed it the "helper's high," a blissful feeling that you get after you do something for someone else that is genuinely kind. These euphoric emotions are attributed to dopamine and oxytocin—two mood-boosting chemicals—that are released after a person performs a good deed for their fellow man (or woman).

One study on the helper's high phenomenon, conducted by United Healthcare, found that, among people who spent a few hours per week doing face-to-face volunteer work, 96 percent said that they felt happier, and 73 percent said that they felt less stressed.

So, why is it that caregivers, many of whom spend the majority of their waking hours caring for someone else, aren't constantly tripping out on the helper's high?

According to Stephen Post, Ph.D., director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, caregivers simply spend too much time and energy caring for their loved ones to see the benefits of the helper's high. Not to mention the other myriad stressors that can occur, like lost jobs, financial trouble, strained family relationships, and the pain of watching a loved one who is suffering, all of which take a toll on a caregiver's mood.

Why helping other caregivers, helps you

But, that doesn't mean that caregivers can't find joy in helping others. It just means that they may need to approach it from a different angle.

Post, a former caregiver, and member of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Panel of Alzheimer's Disease International, says that participation in support groups and forums can be a good way for caregivers to reap the benefits of another kind of service-induced euphoria: the helper therapy principle.

The helper therapy principle, is the term used to describe the good feelings that people get when they participate in mutual-aid support groups.

Research has shown that both the helpers and the helped can benefit from support groups. Those who are helped receive guidance and counsel, while the helpers receive the positive emotions and feelings of increased relevance that coincide with translating their personal experiences into advice for others.

According to Post, support groups and forums, "give people in that community the opportunity to help others. There can be a lot of laughter and positive emotion when people are listening to another caregiver and supporting them."

And, thanks to the Internet, you don't have to seek out a physical support group to find ways to help your fellow caregiver. Online support groups and forums are a wonderful way for a time-strapped caregiver to offer advice and assistance to their fellow men and women in the trenches at any time of the day or night.

For example, AgingCare.com's Caregiver Forum is home to thousands of caregivers, many of whom are eager to share their experiences and offer support on a variety of issues, including: "How do you deal with a narcissistic mother?", "What should I consider before deciding if my aging parent should move in with me?", and "Should I pay off my grandma's house?"

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist, and author of "It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out Of Dysfunction," offers a few suggestions for ways that caregivers can find personal happiness through supporting one another:

  1. Send inspiration: There's definite value in sending someone you care about an uplifting message. Try this: each day, pick one or two caregivers in your life, and send them a quick, inspirational quote, to start off their day. Even if they can't respond that same day, chances are that your gift of encouragement was noticed and will eventually be reciprocated in some way.
  2. Listen with love: "So many of us are lost about how to help a friend in times of grief; but all that's really needed is a little kindness, and a listening ear," Tessina says. Even when you have no specific advice or guidance, it may help a caregiver just to let them know that you are listening. Send someone who's going through a rough time a short message telling them that they are heard and that others are thinking about them.
  3. Re-gift your experiences: The gift of experience is arguably one of the most precious commodities a person can receive—and most veteran caregivers are filled to the brim with cautionary tales and personal anecdotes to share. Seek out someone who's going through the same type of situation that you have gone through and offer your opinion on how (or how not) to handle it. Your fellow caregivers will benefit from any well-thought-out advice you can provide.
  4. Mind your Ps and Qs: When offering up and receiving advice, it's important to remember to be kind and courteous. Don't forget two of the most important phrases in the English language: ‘please,' and ‘thank you.' "Every gift is an expression of love, and every giver should be thanked graciously, no matter what the gift is," Tessina says. Even when you're interacting online, remember that there are real people behind the screen names and avatars you're responding to, and they deserve to be treated as such.

Among experts and policy makers, there's an ongoing search for new, more effective, ways of helping people cope with the challenges of looking after their elderly loved ones. But, in the meantime, by engaging with and assisting one another, caregivers have an opportunity to take advantage of the scientifically-proven cycle of well-being that can occur when people in a group decide to lift one another up.

For his part, Post feels that, too often, the positive aspects of taking care of a loved one can get lost among the dour language that has infected the issue. He says, "Even in caregiving, there can be flourishing and growth. It creates community and allows people to form deeper relationships."

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