We all live with a certain amount of worry, much of which is caused by fear of the unknown. Since health issues can change without warning, family caregivers and the people they care for often live with elevated levels of stress and anxiety. This can be detrimental, not only to the person who is suffering from these feelings of apprehension but also to those around them.
Is Anxiety Contagious?
By nature, humans are social beings. We value companionship and work hard to develop and nurture personal relationships that benefit us in countless ways. Our need for social connection and mutual understanding is so great, that we may even mimic others’ emotions and attitudes during encounters to develop trust and encourage closeness. To help us in this endeavor, we have evolved to read into other humans’ behaviors—both consciously and unconsciously—down to analyzing minor facial expressions, postures and vocal qualities. But social interactions can cause more meaningful effects than mere mimicry. We may empathize with those around us so much that we come to adopt their feelings as our own.
For example, if a caregiver is experiencing burnout due to difficult care decisions or work-related stress, they likely bring that anxiety home in some form and unintentionally transfer it to the person they are caring for. Many caregivers try to hide their worries from family members, but this is much easier said than done. Tension and inner turmoil can be conveyed and detected overtly in our words and actions and through subtle cues like body language and tone of voice.
You may think you are putting on a brave and happy face for your loved ones, but your care recipient can probably sense that something is wrong. As a result, an elder’s own anxiety levels may rise. This tendency to express and feel emotions that are similar to those of others is called “emotional contagion” and has long been studied by social psychologists.
Even seniors with dementia can pick up on the negative emotions of those around them, although they may not be capable of fully understanding where they stem from. This ambiguity may cause a care recipient (with or without dementia) to internalize these feelings and believe that they are the cause of their caregiver’s grief.
Regardless of what is behind these feelings of caregiver stress (work, marital strain, finances, etc.), these emotions can quickly get out of hand. Anxiety is contagious and can start a dangerous feedback loop that damages one’s relationships, productivity, and physical and mental health.
How to Break the Cycle of Anxiety
While the help of an experienced therapist or primary care physician may be needed to address more severe cases of caregiver burnout, there are steps that caregivers can take on their own to lower their anxiety levels. In turn, these steps can have a beneficial impact on care recipients. Use some of the following techniques to decompress and minimize the effects of stressors in your life.
- Accepting the reality of your situation can do wonders for your mental state. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you like the way things are going currently; it simply means that you are not mentally fighting against them. Caregivers can take a bit of advice from the well-known Serenity Prayer by accepting the things they cannot change, gathering the courage to change the things they can, and finding the wisdom to know the difference between them. Keep in mind that embracing the countless challenges of life and caregiving with a level head takes practice for many people. Don’t feel discouraged if you aren’t able to immediately accept everything on your plate with a smile. Just focus on the goal of not creating more anxiety for yourself by refusing to stress over things that aren’t in your control.
- Journaling is a cathartic and low-cost activity that helps many people express and examine their emotions and decisions. When we write down our feelings for our eyes only, we can be totally honest without fear of judgement. Putting our negative emotions on paper can take away some of their power and reduce their ability to generate even more damaging feelings like guilt. Journaling about positive experiences is important, too, as it can remind you to embrace gratitude and help you achieve a more balanced attitude in your daily life.
- Stop feeling guilty. Learn to forgive yourself for perceived shortcomings in caregiving and other areas of your life. When journaling, you may uncover some issues that you can improve upon. Other problems may stump you. Remind yourself that, while you may have flaws, you are giving your very best. If there is something you feel you can get better at, talk to another caregiver, see a professional counselor or join a Support Group for help with developing stronger skills.
- Take care of yourself by eating well and exercising. Study after study tells us that prioritizing our physical health can have a beneficial impact on our mental health—and vice versa. Following through can be a challenge, but, again, just do your best. Stressing over an unrealistic diet and exercise schedule will only work against you in the long run.
- Breathe! Have you ever noticed that when you are very, very anxious you are barely breathing? In fact, symptoms of an anxiety attack include shortness of breath. When you feel your anxiety beginning to overwhelm you, try this simple “4-7-8” breathing exercise recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil: Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound for a count of eight. This cycle counts as one breath. Now repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four mindful breaths to help you feel refreshed.
- Meditation and/or prayer can be very helpful in managing stress. People of faith find great relief from anxiety by praying. Meditation can also be a form of prayer or it can be a period of quiet mindfulness where a person focuses on achieving mental clarity and calm.
- Find something you enjoy and make it a part of your routine. This is one of my suggestions that results in the most eye rolling from caregivers. How are busy caregivers supposed to find time for a break? I agree that it’s not always possible to find the time to do everything you’d like to, but setting aside even 20 minutes of me-time a day can give you some peace and a renewed sense of self. If you have a beloved hobby or pastime, don’t let it disappear from your life because you’re struggling with caregiver burden. You may have to cut back for a time, but don’t drop it completely. Indulging yourself a bit will help you feel less trapped by the needs of others. So, find some respite care so you can take that relaxing bath, set aside some time for cooking, knitting or gardening, or commit to walking in the park once a week. You deserve it.
How to Minimize Anxiety in Seniors
Most of the suggestions above are for family caregivers. Here a few tips to help your care receiver feel less anxious, which, in turn, should cycle back to benefit you as well.
- Try to keep their environment calm and pleasant.
- Stick to a routine.
- Make sure your loved one has plenty of one-on-one attention so they feel safe and loved.
- Don’t argue with someone with dementia. Learn to use approaches like validation and redirection to handle difficult dementia behaviors.
- Treat your loved one as an adult and a whole person. No matter how many health issues a senior has, they always deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
It’s likely that few people will want to follow all these suggestions, but please try to be open-minded. If even one of these small adjustments could reduce your caregiver stress level and cycle back to your care receiver and other family members, then it is well worth the effort.