*Please note that this post includes mention of attempted suicide.
Almost every human, at some time, lives the experience of consumingly caring for someone else—perhaps even to the point where their own needs bump to back-burner status. Maybe you’re immersed in tending to a brand new baby, or caring for a parent, or working in the healthcare sector during this era of literal life-and-death, or completely occupied with another’s wellbeing in some other way. When these circumstances set in, we need to protect our own physical and mental strength but, understandably, we usually don’t.
Like most people, I too have sometimes found myself submerged, totally taken up with another’s welfare. Clients, colleagues and friends know that, for about seven years, my precious, now 20-year-old daughter has bravely managed a harrowing struggle with mental health that included two attempts to take her own life. Naturally, her struggle is OUR struggle—mine, my husband’s, my son’s— because we’re really fiercely devoted to each other. I’ve openly shared this in my work as a health coach because, if we are human, we’re basically guaranteed to experience, if not this specific situation, then one equally challenging, one that taps into every iota of energy we possess. It does NO ONE any good to pretend otherwise.
In my profession, textbooks devote special sections focused on coaching and physically training caregivers. You’d think I’d have mastered my own care perfectly, but of course, no one does. Allow me to share a few lessons learned along the way, including professionally-backed strategies:
SET ASIDE TIME TO CARE FOR YOU, NO MATTER WHAT.
Under extreme stress, what’s the very first thing we claim to lose? Time, of course. To an extent, it’s true, especially if you’re riding the apex of a crisis. But if you’re caring for someone over months or years, then you’re engaged in a CHRONIC situation. Very different from acute crisis. (It took me years to realize that my daughter and our family are navigating a lifelong condition. When I stopped believing the situation would end and THEN I’d do some things differently for myself, it freed me to become healthier.) Find a way to find time for you. Lean on a partner or neighbor to assume some tasks. Get up earlier. Whatever it takes. Trite but true: We’ve got to affix our own oxygen masks before we can care for anyone else.
FOLLOW YOUR TRUEST INSTINCTS IN YOUR OWN CARE.
Heads up: This proves harder than it sounds. Most of us know—or think we know—what we “should” be doing to be well. Maybe we’re so used to to-do lists that we immediately label our own needs as chores. Or maybe we’re just really, really tired; or really, really agitated; or really, really overwhelmed. Yes, some excellent self-care strategies would include exercise and skipping the comfort eating. (More on those in a minute.) But depending on your current circumstances, you might just benefit more from a good, old fashioned, quick daily nap. Or an escape into a book. Here’s the catch—We’ve got to be HONEST with ourselves. If you know you’d feel better regularly taking a walk, then you can’t pretend Netflix is the better choice. Crud, I know. Authentic self awareness, however, serves our health way more than caving to the craving of the moment.
REMEMBER THE PROVEN STRESS REDUCERS.
Once we carve out some time and tap into the truth about what we need, looking at researched ways to lower stress and improve health points us in good directions. We can become fortified. The following practices can strengthen you in body and spirit, especially as you brace for potential future crises (which, as much as we wish they didn’t, do inevitably come our way).
• Lock in Sleep. In my experience with many, many clients, poor sleep rears up as one of the most unfair challenges most caregivers face. Sleep is a slippery state to harness because drifting off requires letting go. Unfortunately, sleep aids do us no favors, either. We may feel we’re sleeping deeply, but in reality we’re sedated, a very different state than true sleep, with ramifications for memory and emotional processing (according to Matthew Walker, founder of the Center for Sleep Science and author of Why We Sleep). The National Sleep Foundation lays out specific tactics to promote sleep health, including limiting naps, exercising, avoiding stimulants, and much more.
• Exercise. No fancy way to say it. Moving our bodies at a moderate intensity for half an hour a day triggers enormous physical and mental health advantages. It seriously reduces stress, according to the Mayo Clinic, by blasting you with endorphins, creating a meditative state of flow, and markedly lifting mood. If you’re just returning to exercise, consult with your doctor (always a must, but especially important if, as a caregiver, you’ve tabled your own health for a substantial chunk of time).
• Eat well. Eat regularly. Most of us instinctively know that food choices change mood. Sugar can cause a rocket boost of energy followed by that unfortunate speedy crash. Caffeine can seem energizing til we’re trapped in the jitters or lying bug-eyed in bed. Safe bets—three meals a day, spaced 3-4 hours apart, each containing some protein, unprocessed carbs, and veggies/fruit; a couple of decent snacks (aiming for low amounts of added sugar); and lots of water or decaf tea.
• Steal Mindful Moments. You don’t have to undertake a full 30 or 60-minute meditation session to benefit from some quiet time. Just a deep breath or two activates a physiological relaxation response. And if you CAN manage to adopt mindfulness meditation, the researched benefits are worth it; they include potential reductions in blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, among others.
MOST OF ALL, SEEK SUPPORT.
Here’s where I fell way short. Like many, I thought I should be able to bear the burden of caring for my daughter, with only my equally fatigued (and absolutely amazing) husband in the boat with me. The fact that so many people couldn’t understand what it was like to care for a sometimes suicidal child left me feeling isolated. And I couldn’t muster the additional energy it would take to seek excellent mental healthcare for myself. Finally, I faced facts—I wasn’t going to truly thrive if I didn’t find more support. Top-notch professional counseling (something I’d also benefited from in college, by the way) brought me back to a much more complete state of wellbeing, as did nurturing a couple of very close, soul-sister friendships. So, if I were to recommend just one thing to a caregiver, it would be to find support—whether in the form of a friend, a family member, a support group, a coach, a spiritual leader, a mentor, or a therapist. We humans were not meant to go it alone. Just as you give of yourself, allow someone to gladly give to you, too.