Being a caregiver for a loved one is one of the most admirable roles a person can take on. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult. For the estimated 53 million Americans providing unpaid care for loved ones, there are several challenges that go without acknowledgment or support. Many will be specific to a caregiver’s unique circumstances, such as financial hardship, lack of resources, and employment setbacks. However, one struggle remains universal: mental health.
As caregivers find themselves physically and emotionally burned out while caring for those around them, tending to their own mental health needs can easily become less of a priority. Studies show that in a given year, no less than 20% of Americans will admit to struggles with mental health. Over the course of a lifetime, the number of people who will at some point be diagnosed with a mental illness jumps to over 50%. Staggering as the statistics may be, amongst caregivers, those numbers only increase. So what can be done?
Simple acts of dedicated self-care are instrumental in helping caregivers manage their mental health. In this collaboration of expertise between a Nivati clinician and a Cariloop Care Coach, we will explain why mental health should be a concern for every caregiver and how to take the lead in your mental wellbeing.
Prioritizing Your Mental Health
The amount of time and attention necessary to care for a loved one often leaves caregivers prioritizing their care responsibilities over their own mental health. Self-care falls further out of mind when navigating the following:
- Work commitments
- Lack of resources
- Caregiver guilt
As Cariloop Care Coach Renee Mohan, LMSW, says, “Mental health is part of healthcare. We have to think about mending our mental health the same way we think about mending a broken bone.” Just as a bone requires time and attention to heal, so does a mind under mounting stress. Having a routine in place that prioritizes mental health can help avert a personal crisis before it begins. Moreover, maintaining a healthy mental state allows you to show up as the best version of yourself to better care for your loved one. In the end, that’s what every caregiver strives for.
Areas for Caregiver Self-Care
Self-care can feel directionless if you aren’t sure which areas of your wellbeing need nurturing.
Haeli Harris, Lead Clinician and LMFT counselor at Nivati encourages her clients to think about self-care in five categories: “Self-care is the way we make sure we are doing well mentally, emotionally, physically, socially and spiritually. The way we take care of ourselves will feed over into other areas of our lives and affect everything else.”
Harris also encourages caregivers to remember that “Self-care doesn’t have to look the same for everybody, especially through different phases of life.”
During some seasons, a caregiver may need to focus on their physical wellbeing through exercise and healthy eating. During other seasons, they may need to focus primarily on emotional self-care.
Here are some self-care examples for each of the five areas of wellbeing:
- Mental: Meditation, journaling, reading, therapy
- Physical: Walking, yoga, exercise, healthy eating, sleep
- Emotional: Practicing gratitude, journaling, spending time with loved ones, therapy
- Spiritual: Prayer, meditation, spending time in nature, service
- Social: Spending time with loved ones, community events
How Caregivers Can Find Time to Take Care of Themselves
Self-care can be intimidating at first. Many caregivers feel like they don’t have the time to properly care for themselves.
Thankfully, there are some ways that caregivers can integrate self-care into their everyday life.
1. Practice self-care with the person you are caring for
For busy caregivers, this is Harris’ #1 recommendation. “Involving others in your self-care is a great way to squeeze self-care into your day. You could do walks with people or be conscious and aware of what you are eating with them during a meal.”
For instance, if you and the person you are taking care of both enjoy drawing, set aside some time to draw together.
2. Find small moments to practice self-care
A common misconception about self-care is that you need large chunks of time to practice it properly. Harris encourages a shift in this mindset.
“I always give my example of morning coffee. When my kids were younger, I’d get up earlier—10 minutes earlier—just so I have some time to enjoy my coffee and have a quiet morning before starting my day.”
But you don’t need to wake up early to find that time for self-care. Find small moments throughout the day to recenter and ground yourself. You can spend two minutes looking at the sky or spend 2 minutes stretching.
3. Address multiple areas of wellbeing at once with your self-care
For example, taking a walk outside with the person you are caring for can address multiple areas of wellbeing: physical, social, and even mental or spiritual.
4. Schedule time for self-care
“Usually, when people are taking care of others… and we can handle quite a bit on our plate… it often gets to a breaking point of pain or exhaustion, and the body and mind start breaking down. You have to schedule it [self-care],” states Harris.
It’s crucial to block time off on your calendar for self-care. Lunch is a great time of the day to step away and take a breather and nourish your body.
“Find appointments or activities that are at a set time every week, like a fitness class. Involving others in your self-care, like playing at the park—that can be your time to be outside and get some physical and social activity as well.
5. Find ways to take things off your plate
Consider having groceries delivered or working a meal delivery service into your weekly dinner rotation. You could also utilize a housekeeping service at a frequency that fits your budget—whether that’s once a week or even once a month.
6. Let the person you care for be your reminder
When you make an appointment for your loved one with a doctor or dentist, take that time to make an appointment for yourself as well. Anything that you would do for the benefit of their wellbeing, remember to also do for yourself.
7. Lean on your support network
A support network can be anyone you trust inviting into your life as a caregiver. This could include family, friends or members of the community. Turn to these individuals when you need respite care for your loved one—even if it’s just an hour to give yourself a break. Your support network can also provide a listening ear and emotional comfort in times you feel the need to vent your frustrations.
Find more ways to fit self-care into your life as a caregiver here Self-care for Caregivers Without Much Time
Self-Care Ideas for Caregivers
1. Virtual Therapy
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, virtual therapy may be a good option.
“It is important to think of therapy as time for yourself and as a form of self-care,” states Harris.
Therapy is a great way to help you process your thoughts and feelings, plus create a self-care plan so you can start feeling better.
Here are some articles from Nivati, the employee mental health platform, on how to get started with virtual therapy:
- How to Start Therapy: Common Questions Answered
- How to Get the Most Out of Therapy
- 5 Myths About Therapy
2. Quick Mindfulness Meditations
This is one of Harris’ favorite quick self-care tips. “With caretaking, I like to pull in the five senses. If I am around my kids, I listen to the sounds of their voices and pay attention to what they are saying. If we’re out walking, I use my sight and really notice the textures and colors around us.”
“If you start doing these mindfulness exercises in your everyday life, it starts to become a habit in all of your activities.”
Regular meditation practice can shrink the parts of the brain responsible for the flight or fight response, and grow areas of the brain that help with focus. The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will be to stay in the present moment.
You can also try following along to a 5-minute meditation to ease anxiety. Here is one from Nivati to try out. https://vimeo.com/680449057
3. Mindful Eating
We tend to multitask while eating or eat so quickly that we don’t enjoy it.
Next time you sit down for a meal, take time to focus on what you taste and smell, the textures of the food, and how the food is making you feel. This can help calm anxious thoughts and return to the present.
4. Comfortable Exercise
Exercise looks different for everyone. Care Coach Renee stresses, “Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. It only matters that it releases stress and lets you change your focus for a period of time.” A scenic walk, a morning bike ride, weight lifting—whatever feels comfortable and puts your mind at ease.
5. Personal Hobbies
Lean into the crafts and activities that have always brought you comfort, or step out and try something new. Your hobby can be as simple as reading or watching your favorite shows, and it can be as adventurous as taking a dance class or learning archery. In any case, make sure that it is something that centers your interests and brings you joy.
How This Can Help You Be a Better Caregiver
While self-care is a means of self-preservation, it also strengthens your ability to care for your loved ones. When you are the best version of yourself, that’s the person who can provide the best care. They are patient, they are attentive and they are present in every way they need to be.
When caregivers neglect their mental health, feelings of resentment and anger toward the person they care for can easily arise. Making time to take care of yourself is part of your personal investment in providing the best care to your loved one.
Read more about how your self-care impacts the person you care for here: Self-Care for Caregivers
Overcoming Guilt Around Self-Care
Yet, guilt around self-care often still arises. Taking care of yourself can feel like neglecting your duties—but that is not the case.
Harris shared with us her story with self-care guilt: “Overcoming guilt about self-care was so hard for me when my kids were little. It would sometimes feel selfish if I were to do things for myself. I realized it’s not selfish—I needed to take care of myself so I could take care of them.”
“I was 100% about my kids. My kids were my everything, every decision was about the kids. It was good… but at the same time, it was really bad for my mental health. My mental health disorder became a little harder to manage, and the symptoms got worse, and it forced me to the point where I had to start taking care of myself or I couldn’t take care of my kids. I wouldn’t be there to take care of my kids unless I started taking care of myself.“
“It wasn’t about doing self-care for me—it was about bettering myself so I could be a better caregiver.”
“Mental health and physical health are of equal importance. I tell my clients that all the time. If you have depression, treat it just like you would for diabetes. What would you be doing if you had diabetes? You’d be on top of it, going to the doctor, taking your meds. Do the same thing for depression or any mental health disorder.”
Just like eating so you have energy isn’t selfish, taking time to care for your overall wellbeing is good for you and those around you.
Remember: Taking care of yourself will help you become a better caregiver.
Benefits Through Your Employer
For circumstances that require more individualized assistance, consider reaching out to your employer regarding mental health or caregiver benefits. Taking advantage of these benefits can alleviate stress within your caregiving situation.
For more on self-care and taking care of yourself at work, check out Nivati’s Mental Fitness Toolkit.
For more information on caregiver support, check out Cariloop’s Mental Health Awareness Toolkit.
This blog post is a collaboration by Haeli Harris, Lead Clinician and LMFT at Nivati and Renee Mohan, LMSW and Cariloop Care Coach. Check out Cariloop to learn more about how you can help your team help their loved ones.
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