How to Prioritize Self-Care When You’re Caring for Someone Else

It starts with your mindset.

Photo credit: 	Cavan Images/Getty Images
Photo credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Managing the responsibilities and stress of caregiving can be a struggle, especially when you have to integrate it along with all your other responsibilities, both at work and at home. But those caring for a loved one with mental illness face unique challenges due to stigma, and to the complexity of navigating treatment. I sat down with Deborah Miscoll, Psy.D., a psychologist and Managing Director at Deloitte to talk about mental health in the workplace. In this conversation, we discussed the important role that caregivers play in the lives of those experiencing a mental illness.

Jen Fisher: Millions of people a year experience some form of mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says it’s as many as one in five adults every year. Those people have families, friends, co-workers — that’s a huge pool of people who are affected by mental health challenges.

Deborah Miscoll: Yes. There are many people supporting their friends and loved ones. But caregivers can face the same concerns about stigma and judgment that confront people with mental health issues.

You’re also dealing with the challenge of accessing care — especially if your loved one has a severe mental illness. In that case, you’re probably taking the lead in navigating the health care system, which can seem like a full-time job, on top of whatever responsibilities you already have. Add to that the emotional ups and downs that you experience when someone you love is in the midst of a mental health crisis. It can be overwhelming. So caregivers have to be extra-vigilant about caring for themselves.

JF: So it’s like they tell us on airplanes — put on your own oxygen mask before you help others.

DM: Exactly. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. And for the most part, many people caring for loved ones with mental health challenges experience great psychological satisfaction, pride about giving back to loved ones, and enhanced social growth.

But some caregivers can experience strains that disrupt their own lives and well-being. If caregiving starts to feel like a burden, you’re not a “bad” person; you’re experiencing something that many others feel, too. The real problem comes when the caregiver is overextended for a prolonged period. Your coping resources can get weakened over time. Researchers see higher levels of depression and other health problems when this happens. So you really do need to prioritize your own well-being.

JF: Do you have any suggestions for managing self-care while caring for someone with a mental health issue?

DM: It starts with mindset:

— Don’t frame the situation as a negative; have a hopeful attitude that things will improve with time and treatment.

— Stay focused on living your life. The caregiving you do is just one part of that life.

— Try your best to keep to your own familiar schedules and routines.

— Maintain your own social support infrastructure. That’s one of the most significant things you can do to elevate your emotional health. Social interaction can help you stay the course and receive the care you need.

And building resiliency through well-being behaviors can also help. Stay active, pay attention to hydration, eat nutritious foods, and get enough quality sleep! About one-third of us don’t get enough sleep, and sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on our own mental and emotional well-being.

JF: I’ve found that practicing gratitude can be a powerful self-care tool as well.

DM: Absolutely. Starting and/or ending the day by writing down three things you’re grateful for can help you enormously from an emotional perspective. Especially when you’re in a caregiving situation, it can help you reframe your perspective around what’s positive and fulfilling in your life.

Self-care strategies are easy to learn and embed in your life. Remember, they don’t have to completely change your routine — even small behaviors can build up to create a big impact on your resiliency and mood.

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