“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” –John Milton
Epiphanies and awe are two things that aren’t generally cited in family caregivers’ day-to-day routines. More often mentioned are the physically and emotionally challenging moments, such as assisting Mom with walking, bathing and dressing, or the ongoing fight with your brother over who should be Dad’s power of attorney.
“When we are feeling scared, worried, or overwhelmed in life, it’s hard to find our gratitude,” admits Karol Ward, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and confidence expert. “Our minds feel caught in a loop of anxiety, which makes us view the world through a darker lens.”
So, how does one find their way out of this gloom? Is it possible for a caregiver to experience “everyday epiphanies” despite the unique challenges they face? Milton thought so. His solution is summed up in one simple word: gratitude.
What Is Gratitude?
According to relationship advice expert April Masini, being grateful means “taking yourself out of the moment and out of the situation enough to see that things could be worse.” She defines gratitude as “the ability to rise above.”
Mastering this skill can do wonders for a caregiver’s physical and mental health.
Elizabeth Waterman, PsyD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in mood and anxiety disorders, says that gratitude is a very healing emotion that can help family caregivers gain a more optimistic outlook on life. The effects of this shift in mindset affect all aspects of daily life and can even facilitate access to a wider and more reliable social support network.
She also points out that a number of studies have linked feelings of gratitude with reduced stress and a healthier immune system. In fact, substantial evidence shows that grateful people are more likely to take care of their own health by adopting better habits like eating right and exercising.
Of course, gratitude doesn’t change the physically and emotionally challenging aspects of caregiving or make those stressors go away. But according to Waterman, practicing being grateful for the good things in life despite all the hurdles can help caregivers reframe how they see and feel about things. “Even if you aren’t feeling positive or grateful about your situation, you can enact certain behaviors and the grateful attitudes and feelings will follow,” she assures.
6 Ways to Practice Gratitude and Improve Caregiver Health
Family caregivers can use the following tips to find their wings of gratitude and rise above negative thinking patterns.
- Thank your earthly guardian angels.
Whether or not you refer to them as guardian angels, every caregiver has people in their life that love and support them. These are the people who’ve gotten you through past trials or are currently helping you cope with caring for your loved one. Taking the time to thank these folks will not only make them feel good, but it is also likely to generate a host of positive feelings within you as well. When expressing your gratitude, Waterman says that face-to-face interactions are best because they can provide a more powerful positive response. But, if time and distance prohibit you from thanking your earth-bound angel in person, a hand-written thank you note, phone call or video call will certainly suffice.
- Spread positivity to others.
Ward touts the power of smiling and greeting the people you see on the street or in the grocery store. Even if you don’t know someone personally, she says that when you say “hi” to a stranger, you may “be surprised by how another person’s smile or reply can lift your spirits.” Putting simple acts of kindness out into the world will help you feel happier and more connected and increase the likelihood that others will reciprocate.
- Spend some time on cloud nine.
Each day, Waterman suggests setting aside a few minutes to sit and reflect on the positive experiences in your life. For caregivers, it may help to identify those things you are grateful for when it comes to taking care of your elderly loved one. After your reflection, if you feel up to it, Waterman says you may want to return to the first tip above and express these feelings of appreciation to the elder. Even if they can’t understand you or brush off your comments, vocalizing your gratitude may foster a more loving relationship between the two of you.
If your present situation seems too gloomy, you can turn your attention to simpler, happier times. Delve into those moments and really feel the positivity and gratitude that wells up inside of you when you think about them. A walk down memory lane can be nostalgic and refreshing, but try not to give in to feelings of regret, guilt or pining for the past. For some, looking towards the future—whether it’s a few hours of respite time scheduled for next week or aspirations of a major life change on the horizon—can provoke excitement and thankfulness.
- Acknowledge the small joys of each day.
It’s easy to get so caught up in our own problems that we fail to notice and fully appreciate the beautiful things we encounter in everyday life. Waterman’s remedy for this is to keep small pieces of paper and a pencil with you wherever you go. Throughout the day, as you notice things like how nice the flowers in your garden smell, how beautiful a bird’s song is, or how great a cool breeze feels on a hot summer day, jot them down. You can also keep these notes on your cell phone and even snap pictures or videos of moments that strike you. At the end of the day, review your notes and reflect on these small blessings. If it appeals to you, put those that you find most inspiring in a special box or folder for safekeeping and future reflection.
- Devise an emergency pick-me-up plan.
When it’s been “one of those days” and you just can’t seem to tap into a more positive mindset, you may need to create your own motivational moments. Of course, this seems like a monumental task for family caregivers who are already spread thin, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Ward advises searching for inspiration in books, videos, music, hobbies—anywhere you can find it. Consider buying a book of motivational quotes, creating your own personalized playlist of uplifting songs, or relying on a favorite TV show or movie to lift your spirits. According to Ward, doing this as little as once a day for a week can be enough to help foster feelings of gratitude and help you gain perspective.
- Seek out like-minded souls.
People have a tendency to feed off one another’s emotional vibes, and who we surround ourselves with has a huge impact on our attitude. “Negativity is contagious,” Waterman notes, “but so is positivity.” Healthy support systems are crucial for family caregivers. This is especially important for those who are caring for difficult elders who are overwhelmingly negative. Caregiver support groups are excellent resources that provide safe spaces for members to vent, get advice and feel heard by peers who understand caregiving’s inherent challenges. Waterman stresses that it’s also vital to maintain a network of positive friends and family members who can support you and offer perspective when needed.
Fostering an attitude of gratitude while taking care of a loved one can be a challenge. Even if you do every single one of the things on the list above, the effects won’t be miraculous or instantaneous. As Masini says, “Cultivating gratitude is a matter of discipline. It requires mindfulness and focus.” Family caregivers do a great deal for others—often at their own expense. Setting some time and energy aside to practice the above tips will help you start down a new path toward better physical and mental well-being.