“Take some time,” “Take care of yourself first.” When you hear these words of advice conveyed encountering challenges while caregiving, what’s your immediate reaction? Do you recoil at the idea, or adhere to the belief that to take care of yourself first is either irresponsible, naive, or just outright selfish? Why is it necessary “to first give care to the caregiver?”
An example of this necessity is at the beginning of a flight when the flight attendants warn, “In case of a decompression, place your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” In other words, you need to have enough stamina before you can help another. Even though you may not be in as dire of a situation as a decompression, assisting others in life situations can “take the oxygen out” of us both physically and emotionally.
Caregiving can be expressed in many ways. It can be a calling, an occupation, a change in life circumstances, or a combination of these options. The one receiving the care can be younger, older, or weaker medically. They can also be physically, financially, emotionally, or spirituality in need of support. In order to sustain our energy to aid another, we need to be cognizant of two main issues: 1) our energy level when assisting the other, 2) our attitude when assisting the other.
When an ambulance is called in an emergency, it’s imperative that the vehicle is operational and maintained; such as being fueled, tires inflated, etc. The vehicle needs to be in good working order as a reliable source of transportation. Likewise, our body needs to be considered to sustain our ability to be of service during our role as caregiver. Some elements of maintenance are getting quality sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising, and incorporating some “down time.” However, realizing our beliefs and attitudes about our role as caregiver is essential to our energy level and health.
What do you believe are your responsibilities when you are the caregiver?
Is it to fix, solve, or nurture the other before yourself?
It’s important to reveal our underlying thoughts behind not taking care of ourselves in the role of caregiver, when we acknowledge that this way of operating is detrimental to ourselves.
Some of the following attitudes about caring, if left unchecked, can drain your physical and emotional strength:
It’s my job.
The other person is not able, so it’s my duty.
It would be irresponsible if I didn’t put their needs first.
It would be selfish to put my needs before theirs.
Putting the needs of another before mine is what you should do. Their needs are more important than mine.
I’m unclear about my needs.
I don’t have any needs.
Asking yourself the following questions when practiced can release the feelings of tension and struggle emotionally when helping. The more honestly we assess our motivation and actions, the more information we can glean. Neutral observation of our actions will elicit a better indication of our emotional triggers.
What are your attitudes or beliefs as you give care to others? Do you look forward to helping? Do you feel rewarded?
…feel it’s your calling?
…feel it’s an obligation?
…feel caregiving is the only way you feel valued?
…feel numb and unsure of how you feel?
…feel like you are on a “treadmill” with no end in sight? …feel trapped and resentful?
If our perceptions lead to resentment, exhaustion or depression, a readjustment to our thoughts about caring for others is imperative. Observe if you detect any intensity or tension with regards to your approach when caregiving. Your breathing and muscle tension patterns will give an unbiased clue as to your body’s view when caregiving. Becoming conscious of our motivations and reactions is a step in the direction towards proper maintenance of ourselves. Observation of holding the breath, or holding the muscles tense may indicate delaying relief for oneself until everything is accomplished first.
Breathing rapidly, creating tension in the chest and shoulders, may indicate not being able to keep up with caregiving demands. Labored breathing while creating a feeling of frozen muscles in the torso, may indicate feeling overwhelmed and burdened by caregiving. Sleeplessness may indicate a feeling of uncertainty, negativity and anxiousness in regards to the relationship when giving care to others.
Becoming conscious of our motivations and reactions is a step in the right direction towards the proper maintenance of ourselves. Tense and release exercises, as well as breathing exercises when practiced, can physically release the feelings of tension and struggle. Tending to our tension by using stress management techniques, “putting on our oxygen mask first before assisting others,” cultivates balance by transforming our attitude while maintaining our stamina!
Debra Myers is a Stress Management Consultant at The Psychological Cooperative of Malec, Herring & Krause. Her Stress Management program, Unwrapping STRESS™ educates participants on where tension is located and how stress is created in order to effectively “unwrap” it.