Do these scenes sound familiar:
- You've been in bed for an hour, tossing and turning, but you can't sleep. You keep re-hashing the day's events and worrying over everything that needs to get done tomorrow. Now you start fretting about the fact that you can't get to sleep.
- You're trying to quickly get in and out of the grocery store, because mom has a doctor's appointment this afternoon and the kids have to be dropped off at soccer practice. Suddenly your heart starts beating fast, and your hands start to sweat.
Feeling stressed is normal for caregivers. But constant worrying, unrelenting doubts and pre-occupation with the "what ifs" and worst-case scenarios can be unproductive and even paralyzing. Anxiety causes physical symptoms -- trembling, heart palpitations, insomnia, sweating, fatigue – and mental anguish that interfere with day-to-day life.
The good news is that chronic worrying is a mental habit you can learn how to break. Here are five techniques for recognizing triggers, reducing stress, and overcoming caregiving anxiety.
Coping with Caregiver Stress
Recognize the Physical Response to Stress
The first step is to identify when you're becoming anxious. Listen to your body and recognize physical changes in your body: butterflies in the stomach, feeling as if your heart is beating out of your chest, shortness of breath. Don't let your body's symptoms scare you, let them talk to you. That rapid heartbeat doesn't mean you're having a heart attack; it's your body's natural response to anxiety and stress. Once you know the sensations, you can control them. Think of the physical symptoms as a fire engine going to another place. You've noticed them; now let them pass by.
Pause to Practice Relaxation
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can instantly lower the physical symptoms and mental worry associated with anxiety. Place one hand on your stomach above the navel, and the other hand on your chest. Breathe in slowly until the stomach rises and hold your breath for three to five seconds. Then, exhale slowly. Another exercise to try is muscle relaxation. Tense, and then relax your muscles, one by one. Tense your shoulders, then feel the sensation as you relax those muscles. Continue tensing and relaxing down the body: forearms, hands, abdomen, buttocks, legs and feet. In addition, learning yoga, meditation or prayer will teach you techniques that you can use throughout the day to reduce stress.
Accept that Caregiving Brings Uncertainty
Fear of the unknown plays a huge role in anxiety. Chronic worriers can't stand doubt or unpredictability. They need to know with 100 percent certainty what's going to happen. The problem is, no one can predict the future or control of the outcome of every situation. Thinking about all the things that could go wrong doesn't make life any more predictable and it won't keep bad things from happening. It will only keep you from enjoying life. Stop worry by asking yourself these questions:
- What's the probability that what I'm scared of will actually happen? Is there a more likely, alternate outcome?
- Is the thought helpful? How will worrying about it help me and how will it hurt me?
- What would I say to a friend who had this worry?
Our worries tend to be like the constant dinging of emails: they show up throughout the day, and we stop everything to address them. If you find yourself constantly fretting about things, set aside a 30-minute period each day where you do nothing but worry. During your worry period, you're allowed to worry about whatever's on your mind. The rest of the day, however, is a worry-free zone. After worry time has expired, vow not to think about your problem again until your anxiety time the following day. When you find yourself worrying, jot down what you are worrying about and resolve to think it through later. By the time the worry zone rolls around, many of your troubles won't even matter anymore – and you will have spent almost an entire day anxiety-free.
Avoid Triggers that Cause Stress
Avoid things that can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as poor diet, caffeine, sugar, smoking, over-the-counter cold medications and alcohol. Research has shown that the top three dietary causes of increased anxiety are caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.
In many cases, taking these five steps will be enough to significantly reduce your anxiety. However, if you cannot control your anxiety, see your doctor. Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are available that can help reduce symptoms. In addition, some people may benefit from counseling and therapy.