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Caregiver Wellness: It Starts in Your Head

By , 10:24 pm on

I am one in 34 million. You are, too, if you’re caring for someone over 50 years of age. We’re caregivers. We know this is a stressful job.  Most caregivers would agree; certainly there are 2.3 million hits when a Google search is launched for “caregiver stress.”  There are thousands of articles acknowledging caregiver stress.  They tell you to take care of yourself, to eat right, get exercise, keep your own social ties, go to the doctor for regular check ups, and get respite care to allow a break for yourself. I know; I’ve even written an article or two myself, on caregiver stress.

One element is rarely addressed: what a caregiver is thinking.  I believe to be healthy, a caregiver needs to visit her mental landscape regularly and to work through feelings.   So many feelings come with caregiving: love, anger (at the situation, the circumstances, the loved one), fear (contracting the disease yourself, losing yourself, the unknown, not being able to cope, of your loved one’s suffering and pain), sorrow (at losses, whether your loved one’s or your own), regret (at what you didn’t say and can’t now say), guilt at how you feel and the list could go on.

We caregivers need to be at peace with our feelings and thoughts.  Personally, I have found the following process essential to help me be present for my Mom, who has Alzheimer’s.  It is from Byron Katie, the creator and teacher of a method of self-inquiry, called “The Work(TM).”

Here follows a very brief example of examining feelings through this method.  This is an extract from an article by Dana Larsen/Jodi Patsiner, called “Four Easy Questions to Create Peace for the Caregiver.”

I had the honor of caring for my great aunt during her last days.  I came in to provide respite for her regular caregiver.  I wanted to be a perfect caregiver for this beloved aunt, even a “Super Caregiver.”  My expectations of the coming experience and of my contributions created “super stress” within me. I believe a big source of stress is one’s own thoughts; here are some of the ones that were running through my head like a ticker tape.

  • Is she in pain and not telling me?
  • Should I make her eat even though she is telling me she does not want to?
  • Am I doing this right?
  • I know how to do this, what is wrong with me?
  • I need a break, I am so tired, I have been up all night.
  • I’m being too attentive.
  • I am not attentive enough.

These thoughts went on and on, creating stress, separation, and frustration.  I realized I had a solution in practicing the technique, The Work (TM).  By using this approach, I got instant relief and could be present for my aunt. You will experience peace, love, clarity, and compassion by simply asking the following four questions and working through the Turnaround.

First, choose a thought that creates suffering, frustration, anger or confusion.  Mine was: “Is she in pain and not telling me?”

Next ask yourself:

  • Is it true? (no explanation needed, just Yes or No.) If no, go to #3. My answer: Yes.
  • Can you absolutely know that it is true?  (no explanation needed, just Yes or No.) My answer: Yes.
  • How do you react when you believe that thought? Relax, go inside, and see the picture in your mind of the situation and what is happening from the stressful thought.   My answer: I question everything, I ask a million times if she is okay.  I only see her physical presence and forget about her heart and spirit.  I feel inadequate.  I forget to be still with her and want to “do” something all the time to “make her feel better.” (Notice how these thoughts can cause stress and separation.)
  • Who would you be without the thought? Relax, go inside, and see the picture in your mind of the situation and what it would be like not to have that stressful thought. My answer: I would hear clearly that she is fine and trust her words.  We could actually “be” with each other.  I’d feel peaceful and be present to her needs and my own. (Notice how a sense of peace comes from reading this answer.)

Finally, turn the thought around.

Find three genuine examples of how the turnaround is as true–or more true–in your life.  Doing the turnarounds enabled me to communicate with my aunt from a place of truth as well as showed me information that I did not know prior to investigating my thoughts.

Turnaround #1, from the original thought (“Is she in pain and not telling me?”) is “Am I in pain and not telling me?”

  • I am not talking about the sadness I feel about my aunt dying.
  • I am exhausted and not getting support.
  • I am ignoring my nutritional needs.

Turnaround #2, from the original thought (“Is she in pain and not telling me?”) is “She isn’t in pain and is telling me.”

  • Every time I ask her if she is in pain, she tells me no.
  • She tells me the morphine is working and how happy she is, even when I do not ask.
  • Her body tells me she is not in pain when I see her relaxed and comfortable.

Caregiving is hard work.  We can make it easier for ourselves with a mental approach that supports, rather than one that increases stress.

(You can find out more about this technique by reading Byron Katie’s book, Loving What Is or by visiting her eponymous website.)