A Self-Help Approach to Coping with Caregiver Stress

Caregiving can leave us with a kaleidoscope of emotions that is ever-changing and often tumultuous. Many of these emotions induce guilt. While therapy is recommended for people who are having a deep struggle with negative feelings they cannot lay to rest, often there are steps that we can take by ourselves to handle our feelings in a healthy manner.

Koko Kawasaki, a former graphic designer, was inspired to earn her MA in Gerontology by her experiences as a family caregiver. Her father suffered from multiple health issues including stroke and vascular dementia. Koko offered me some insight into how she handled her personal self-care as a caregiver.

 “Self-care is a necessity for both physical and mental wellness. I initially did not think of caring for myself as I thought that it would take time away from caring for my father. In time, I realized that if I didn’t make time for self-care, my attitude and my ability to provide care were both negatively affected. In hindsight, I believe making time for myself enhanced my caregiving experience.  

“My personal self-care regimen consisted of daily physical and spiritual activities. For exercise, I took brisk walks on most days. Even if I had only 20 or 30 minutes, walking helped me to feel better immediately. My spiritual practice was also vital to self-care. As a Buddhist, I chant daily. As a caregiver, chanting helped me to stay focused, yet flexible. My Buddhist practice gave me spiritual nourishment that sustained me during the difficult times I faced as a caregiver. Other things that I did to self-care included short weekend getaways with my spouse (when I could), and spending time having coffee or dinner with friends.”

While in undergraduate school, Koko developed a program called “Encircle” that would provide caregiver support through community workshops and other resources.

In her presentation, she wrote, “As the demand for caregiving grows, it places the population of family caregivers at risk for poor health, strained family relations, financial difficulties and lower qualities of life for both caregivers and care recipients.”

Her Encircle program included:

  • Workshops on self-care, eating well and exercise
  • Neighborhood walk/talk groups
  • A “Buddy system” with a particular caregiver to provide respite and friendship
  • Phone check-ins with a buddy
  • A video library of funny comedy films
  • Positive incentives for healthy behaviors

While Koko’s program was experimental, there is hope that similar programs will begin to catch on around the country. They are certainly needed. Meanwhile, caregivers can accomplish some of these objectives by connecting with community resources found on their state websites.

Personally, I’m in agreement with all of Koko’s ideas for self-care including the use of spiritual practices. As a Christian, I find prayer throughout the day helpful to me in many ways, but perhaps most importantly it helps me understand that I’m not alone in what I am doing and that there is a purpose in my caregiving that’s beyond my own comprehension. I also find comfort and relaxation through meditation.

Additional suggestions for self-care

  • Mindfulness exercises like yoga and journaling can be soothing.
  • Art—forget being good. Just get some paints or pencils and canvas or paper and let yourself go. Draw anger, draw depression, draw grief. Draw what would make you happy. It helps to put your feelings out in front of you.
  • Music—Listen to music that relaxes you, music that brings out emotion or music that brings back a simpler time. Learn to play an instrument that you’ve always wanted to play. Again, being “good” isn’t the point. This is about doing something that you might enjoy and that takes you out of the present.
  • Online games for emotional health abound on Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook. Go to these sites or browse generally to see if you find something that is doable for you. Many of these are meant to relieve stress, anger and self-doubt.
  • Positive self-talk training. Again, online searches on Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook, or a general search, can help you find free training to learn this important coping mechanism to help you shift away from negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Physical stress relievers such as soft squeezable tubes and balls similar to those used for occupational therapy, as well as exercise programs such as walking with a friend or using a video for guidance as you exercise, can help you feel healthier and more in tune with life.
  • Do something for someone else. This can mean helping out at a place that feeds the homeless, helping single mothers find clothing for job interviews, or teaching crafting ideas to people who have a need to learn a therapeutic skill. Although caregivers tend to have little free time, continuing to give back to others can expand your social networks, give you a change of scenery and help to give you purpose outside of caregiving. Call your community center or a community help line for ideas. Someone there can likely point you in the direction of people who could use your services.
  • Pet shelters have pets for adoption, but don’t take on a pet unless you truly have time to devote to an animal. However, you can visit the shelters and hold kittens or puppies or even train as a dog walker.
  • Attend an appropriate support group. There’s nothing like being a part of a group of people who understand what you are going through. This can be therapeutic both online and/or in person.

No single approach works for everyone, but one or more of these suggestions may help you improve your quality of life. Pick and choose. Create your own wellness program. Believe that you are worth the time.

Also, never forget that professional counseling is an option. Self-care works for many of us, but when thoughts and feelings become too dark and overwhelming, or self-care isn’t having the effect that you’d like, finding the right counselor could be your answer.

Take care of yourself for all concerned. A healthy, grounded caregiver can, just through body language, pass on the positive emotions to the care receiver so that everyone wins.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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