Taking care of oneself while providing for others is a delicate balancing act that we nurses navigate every day. Any caregiver—whether you’re a nurse, a home health aide or a devoted family member—will quickly realize that providing daily care is an arduous job.
Most professional caregivers like myself care deeply about clients and their families, but we are fortunate that we get to go home at the end of our shifts and decompress. This allows us to detach from our work and recuperate physically and emotionally so that we can provide the best quality care once we’re back on duty.
Unfortunately, many family caregivers don’t think about building respite time into their care plans, and those who do often face numerous obstacles to making self-care a priority. When a caregiver doesn’t set aside time for their physical, mental and social well-being, they put themselves at high risk for fatigue, depression, anxiety and a host of physical ailments. In my line of work, any mix of these symptoms is referred to as caregiver burnout. We know firsthand how important it is to keep burnout at bay, but many family caregivers aren’t aware of the risks and wind up overworking themselves to dangerous levels.
Informal caregivers tend to focus on the invaluable care and assistance they provide their loved ones, but it is equally important for you to focus on your own needs as well. Even if you don’t have the resources to hire in-home care for a few hours each week, or your loved one vehemently resists the idea of a respite stay at a senior living community, there are small steps you can incorporate into your weekly routine to prevent caregiver stress from getting the best of you.
Five Relaxation Tips for Family Caregivers
For your sake, as well as the sake of the person you’re caring for, it’s important to set aside time to decompress. Relaxing can be difficult when your stress levels are high, but these five tips can help you prioritize your own health and make the most of your breaks from caregiving.
- Breathe Better
It may surprise you to learn that chronic stress can lead to unhealthy breathing habits. There are several kinds of professionals who can provide guided meditation and/or breathing exercises to help restore your sense of inner balance and clarity, but special instruction is not necessarily required. Even taking just a few minutes each day to breathe deeply can help you achieve greater peace of mind. Just set a timer, close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
To get started, try these 3 Breathing Exercises to Fight Stress and Raise Oxygen Levels or look into meditation and breathing classes at your local community center or gym. There are even mobile phone apps and instructional videos available online that can help you learn mindful breathing techniques.
- Eat Healthy, Relaxing Foods
When tensions are running high and time is running short, it can be tempting to reach for fast food and engage in emotional eating, but this can leave you feeling even more rundown after the fact, especially if it turns into a habit. Indulging every so often is perfectly acceptable, but reaching for healthy, nutrient-dense foods will help keep you feeling your best. It may sound silly, but a stress-reduction diet can support good physical and mental health.
For example, vitamin C has been proven to help reduce stress hormone (cortisol) levels, combat anxiety, improve immune function and naturally lower blood pressure. Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit are high in this essential vitamin and will stay fresh for at least a couple weeks when stored in the refrigerator. Other stress-reducing foods include avocados (high in potassium), nuts (an excellent source of healthy fats), fatty fish like salmon (high in magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids) and oatmeal (a complex carb that stabilizes blood sugar and promotes serotonin production).
- Move Your Body
We all know that exercise is a fundamental part of healthy living, but setting aside the time and energy for regular workouts is a lot to ask of a busy family caregiver. The truth is that you don’t necessarily have to spend an hour at the gym daily to reap the benefits of exercising. Engaging in light physical activity each day can have dramatic effects on your health and mood, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
In addition to the obvious physical benefits, regular exercise releases endorphins, which are a godsend for overburdened caregivers. These chemicals reduce stress, improve sleep, and combat anxiety and depression. So, give yourself the time to walk around the block, dance to a few upbeat songs, do some stretching, and, if you’re feeling ambitious, incorporate some resistance training with either weights or exercise bands.
Read: Fun Exercises to Help Caregivers Stay Healthy
- Tune In and Tune Up
Research shows that listening to music for only 30 minutes, especially classical melodies, produces a significant calming effect. Enjoying even a few songs throughout the day can be beneficial for both you and your loved one. Although “relaxing music” is typically characterized as having a slow tempo, low pitch and no lyrics, musical preferences are highly individual. Whatever your favorite genre, make a point of playing some tunes every chance you get. You can even multitask and engage in your own version of music therapy while cooking, driving, cleaning the house and performing caregiving tasks. Depending on your mood, you can use music to pep yourself up, calm yourself down, inspire a laugh or even help you fall asleep—the possibilities are endless.
Read: Healing Harmonies: Music as Medicine for Seniors and Caregivers
- Stay Organized
Caregiving isn’t just one job; it’s several jobs that must be performed at all hours of the day. Sorting out all your responsibilities and how to best handle them can be mindboggling in itself. The best way to manage this mental laundry list is to put it down on paper. Write down your series of to-dos and make a point of focusing on only one task at a time. I believe this is one of the simplest and most useful time-management skills that caregivers can develop.
Lending your full attention to one item at a time will help you be more efficient and possibly garner valuable bits of free time here and there. Furthermore, crossing off each task will lower your stress levels and give you a greater sense of accomplishment, enabling you to better relax when you do get some down time.