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Take care of yourself emotionally


It is immensely important for caregivers to take care of their emotional health. This article explains why and then describes five effective ways for caregivers to practice emotional self-care.

The importance of emotional self-care

It is immensely important for caregivers to take care of their emotional health. Caregiving comes with many built-in emotional stresses and can stir up negative feelings of being overwhelmed, or feeling worried or frustrated on a regular basis. Unless caregivers prioritize self-care and put specific steps in place to offset this emotional toll, they open themselves up to caregiver stress syndrome, burnout, depression, illness, and premature death. 

Effective ways for caregivers to take care of themselves are to set boundaries, set limits, stay connected, schedule self-care breaks, and practice relaxation techniques.

Setting boundaries

Boundaries are self-protecting decisions you make about how other people are allowed to treat you. This includes what they say and do to you and in your presence. For instance, a boundary could be that you won’t accept the person you are caring for ordering you around like a servant. Or, you won’t be OK with a sibling disrespecting your time by scheduling you into the care rotation without checking first whether you are available. Boundaries are only fair if they are clearly communicated to others.

For each boundary, you need to decide on actions you will take to protect that boundary if someone crosses it. To be most effective, these actions should be presented as a set of options for the other person. For instance, if a loved one is distressing you by frequently rejecting food and water, you could say, “You can choose to eat and drink enough and have me continue as your main caregiver, or you can choose not to and I will need to find a professional to take over.” This lets the other person know that they have a choice about what ends up happening. 

Setting and maintaining boundaries can be hard when other people involved have weak or absent boundaries. They may accept disrespectful behavior from others, think the caregiver should accept it from them, or believe in a level of self-sacrifice that is harmful to emotional health. In these cases, the caregiver needs to remember that they have the right to make their own decisions and protect their own well-being.

Setting limits

Limits are self-protecting decisions you make about what you will and won’t do. An example could be that you will help your loved one dress but not bathe or go to the toilet, or that you will spend the hours of 5 to 7 p.m. with them four evenings a week, but other caregivers will have to be scheduled the rest of the time.

Healthy limits are based on realistic, compassionate expectations of yourself. It is important to remember that you have a right to maintain your own life and stay emotionally and physically healthy, even if others see this as selfish.

Staying connected

In their busy, pressured lives, caregivers can view taking time out to socialize as a luxury they can’t afford. However, humans are biologically hard-wired to be social, so connecting with other people is a non-optional part of staying emotionally healthy. Isolated and lonely people feel more anxious and depressed, are more likely to consider suicide, and are at higher risk for heart disease and dementia.1 Therefore, taking the time and energy to connect needs to be at the top of the priority list.

If you feel like you can’t talk to any of your usual friends and colleagues about the realities of caregiving, an in-person or online caregiver support group can offer you a place to share your true feelings with other people who are going through the same experiences. Many of these groups offer activities or caregiving for the person being cared for at the same time as the session so that the caregiver has the time to participate. Even just posting on an online caregivers’ forum can bring a sense of relief, connection, and community.

Scheduling self-care breaks

Scheduling regular breaks for relaxing and recharging is an effective way to keep your emotional health from getting bumped off the list of priorities. Writing them directly into the caregiving schedule encourages you to make advance arrangements for someone else to do the caregiving at specific times so that you can look after yourself. 

Experts recommend that caregivers use time off to do things that renew and recharge them. Visiting with a friend, listening to music, singing, doing something that makes you laugh, and going for a walk are all good ways to use your breaks, as these activities release feel-good chemicals that can offset stress hormones and help restore emotional balance. 

Practicing relaxation techniques

Activities such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices can help calm thoughts and emotions. One way they do this is by slowing down brainwaves, which reduces anxiety, stress, and fatigue. In fact, research shows that these techniques can improve a person’s mood at least as effectively as antidepressants or antianxiety medication.2

For those who have a hard time sitting still or feel too busy to schedule in sedentary meditation breaks, active forms of mediation such as mindfulness walks or doing observation exercises while they clean or cook can be just as beneficial as traditional forms.

Related information

Adult day care

Anticipate impacts on your personal life

Avoid feeling alone, isolated, or incapable 

Balance care responsibilities

Create a care plan

Deal with caregiver burnout

Deal with caregiver depression

Find trusted sources of help

Get help and support

Join a caregiver community

Minimize family confusion, disagreements, and frustration

Take care of yourself physically

End notes

1Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness. Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
26 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation. Forbes.com

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