How I Practice Self-care as a Caregiver

From one caregiver to another, these tips make a big difference.

fizkes / Shutterstock
fizkes / Shutterstock

Caring for a family member with a serious health condition, as I’ve discovered, can be particularly stressful right now, amid the ongoing pandemic. My husband, Stephen, has a brainstem tumor. He’s intellectually unimpaired but he can’t talk or walk or move his arms; he has a feeding tube and is hooked up to oxygen. I look after him with the help of our older daughter, Chace, along with a caregiver — and sometimes it’s overwhelming: Chace and I both work during the day, and we aren’t seeing friends. I wake up each morning and feel heartbroken, glancing over at Stephen lying in the hospital bed, flashing back to our life before his diagnosis three years ago. I want to roll over and go back to sleep — but I get up and get on with the day.

To help me find joy and stay strong, I’ve learned that prioritizing self-care is crucial and I’ve been experimenting with a variety of simple techniques. Here are five tips that I’ve found work well for caregivers (or anyone, for that matter):

Treat yourself to something that brings you joy 

Little daily luxuries deliver big well-being boosts: By seeking out tiny moments of happiness, you’ll build up strength, resilience, and fight off caregiver burnout. I like to soak in a hot bath with essential oils, watch a comedy or home design show, and chat with friends. Occasionally, I’ll treat myself to a croissant and cappuccino from a favorite bakery, or buy a bunch of tulips. Do whatever sparks joy for you. 

Set aside a few minutes each day to meditate 

Thrive’s founder and CEO Arianna Huffington describes meditation as “a miracle drug,” and I find taking time to go inwards helps me stay calm. “Sitting and meditating, listening to what is going on  inside even for a short time is very helpful for stress management,” Shanthi Gowrinathan, M.D., director of psycho-oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Thrive. I love meditation teacher Paul Kaye’s deeply relaxing sound baths, as well as the “A Moment for Yourself” daily meditations in this very app. 

Take breaks and get your body moving 

Caregivers face tremendous pressures in our current reality: Their personal coronavirus stress is compounded because their loved ones may be particularly vulnerable. To cope with the pressures, Gowrinathan says it’s important to take regular breaks from caregiving, no matter how short in duration. “You’re in the house together, and that dynamic makes it a pressure cooker,” she says, noting that you can’t support your loved ones if you’ve reached your boiling point. She recommends taking a walk outside for a few minutes, where “you might happen to notice there are flowers blooming and birds singing.” Exercise in general is a great way to take your break — it lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Dedicate time to a hobby 

When so much of your time is dedicated to caring for someone else, doing something you love that’s strictly for yourself can reduce stress and provide a healthy distraction from routine responsibilities. I love to cook for example. I also keep a journal, noting what’s happened during the day, how I’m feeling, and any moments of joy I’ve experienced. I write about what I’m grateful for: my family, my job as a writer at Thrive, our oncology team, and that, miraculously, Stephen is still alive. I also write little healing prayers for Stephen and positive affirmations for myself, like: “I am strong; I am doing brilliantly!” The best way to start journaling if you’re not used to it: Write whatever comes into your head without censoring yourself. Even a few minutes journaling is therapeutic. 

Sleep well

Getting quality sleep is foundational for well-being no matter what you’ve got on your plate — but it’s particularly essential for caregivers. To take care of Stephen, I know I need to recharge and prioritize rest. By listening to calming music, turning off my digital devices an hour before bedtime, and reading a book, I usually get seven to eight hours of restful zzz’s a night.

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