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Constantly Feeling Mad, Guilty? How to Break Out of a Mental Rut

Do you ever wonder why it's so easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of life?

Once you start seeing a particular situation as ‘difficult,' it's almost impossible to see it as anything else—especially when it comes to exceedingly demanding circumstances, like caring for an elderly loved one.

There's no doubt that being a caregiver is a grueling responsibility. But some experts believe that the scientific and media communities are making the caregiving role harder by consistently portraying the role as a despairing and pessimistic.

Stephen Post, Ph.D., director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, says that the bleak nature of the lingo surrounding the coverage of caregiving topics does caregivers a great injustice.

"The dominant language is all about the burden. We say things like, ‘the long goodbye,' or, ‘he/she has become a husk.' Efforts need to be made to help caregivers recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate moments of unveiled, continuing self-identity in their loved ones," he says.

A former caregiver himself, Post knows all too well the challenges inherent in caring for an elderly loved one. But he has also seen the positive side of caregiving—those situations where caregivers find that their lives have gained a renewed sense of purpose or significance because they have been given the task of looking after their elderly family members.

Post says he's working on specific strategies to help caregivers become more aware of the encouraging aspects of their interactions with their loved ones, as no definitive methods currently exist.

Coming up with an overall plan for cultivating awareness in a caregiver's life is important because each caregiver's journey is unique. Post says that much of the literature on caregiving treats it as a heterogeneous experience when—in reality—nothing could be further from the truth.

Each caregiver experiences caregiving in a different way because each brings their own thoughts, feelings, interpretations, and biases to the table.

Escape by becoming mindfully aware

So where does that leave the caregiver who wants to escape a rut of negative thinking?

It's easy for a caregiver to become lost in the rat race of caring for their elderly loved one. Marsha Lucas Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in the neuropsychology of relationships, says, "When you're in a place that is so difficult, and is 24/7 challenging and bleak, it becomes very difficult because your mind is constantly rehearsing the difficulty."

This is one reason why caregivers can become frustrated when well-meaning friends and family say "just be more positive," or suggest that chanting a mantra will automatically make them happier.

Lucas, another former caregiver, says that these techniques are akin to "trying to pull yourself up by your intellectual bootstraps," and are likely to be ineffective in the long run because they don't address the real issue: how a caregiver's mind is interpreting and responding to their environment.

She says that the key to breaking the cycle of negativity may lie in a technique called "mindful awareness."

Through the practice of mindfulness, a caregiver can utilize one of the brain's most powerful, yet unrecognized skills: neuroplasticity—the mind's ability to change the physical structure of the pathways in the brain.

Developing mindfulness involves engaging in a kind of meditation (no, there's no chanting involved), geared towards helping a person re-connect with themselves.

Lucas says that mindfulness is, "about noticing what is going on for you. It may be grief, anger, resentment, anything. What you're creating is room inside yourself to understand that your experience and your feelings in the moment (that are true and real), are not necessarily all that there is."

What exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, being aware and non-judgemental of your thoughts and feelings, as well as the sensations around you.

Take something as simple as eating, for example. Eating mindfully means consciously being aware of the process of eating: deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. What we taste, the sensation of chewing, what we smell or feel as we eat. Often, we eat unmindfully. We're thinking about a hundred and one other things; we're talking, watching TV or reading. Only a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions. The same is true for caregiving.

Research into how human beings use their brains has shown that people who tend to have more activity on the right side of their brain are more likely to have an emotional style that trends towards being anxious, fearful, negative, and avoidant. Conversely, people who have more activity on the left side of their brain are more likely to have a curious, positive emotional style.

The goal of cultivating a habit of mindfulness, is to help a person become more balanced by integrating both sides of their brain in a more equal fashion.

Lucas offers a few tips for caregivers seeking to start their own mindfulness practice:

  • Five to ten minutes is all you need. Lucas says it's helpful to carve out a tiny five or ten-minute chunk of time during the day to practice. Try to find a way of sitting that is comfortable for you (A chair is fine; you don't have to sit like a pretzel). Close your eyes and try to focus on the moment. Notice your breath, how the air is rushing in and out of your nose. Notice how your body feels as you sit.
  • Periodically hit the re-set button. In order to re-train the neural pathways in your brain, Lucas suggests taking time, throughout the day, to check in with yourself. It doesn't need to be more than a second or two—just try and examine where your mind is and how you are feeling. If you find that you're thinking about all the stuff you still have to do, or dwelling on a fight you just had with your loved one, try gently bringing your awareness back to what you are currently doing in that moment. Lucas likens this cycle of noticing your wandering thoughts and bringing them back, to doing a "mental bicep curl" that will help strengthen your brain's mindfulness pathway.
  • Remember, it's okay to wander. Especially in the beginning, your mind will wander, and that's okay. Lucas says that most people only go a few seconds before their minds ramble out of the present moment. In these situations, remember to be gentle and understanding with yourself.

Practicing mindfulness won't safeguard you against all negativity. But, according to Lucas, over time, it can improve your ability to control you body's physical response to anxiety and anger, help you be more emotionally resilient, and increase your empathy for yourself and the people around you.

Lucas sees only benefits for caregivers who seek to become more aware of their thoughts and emotions. She says, "Mindfulness gets you out of the long over-trained way of doing things. It allows you to bring forth the best of you and bring the best to the world. It's not going to make caregiving sunny and bright, but it will remind you of your own vitality."

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