According to June’s Carers Week organisers, 78% of carers say they feel more stressed because of their caring role. Certainly in my experience few people, other than fellow family carers, fully understand the pressure felt by being responsible for an adult relative 24×7.
Carer’s wellbeing is such a thing, there are even a few cat memes on the subject… as you will see.
Seriously though, when you think about it, there are employment regulations that rightly protect people who work long hours and disruptive shift patterns, but there’s no such protection for those who care for relatives at home.
Unfortunately we carers can expect some long term stress effects and (hopefully only) occasional episodes of acute stress, so it’s important we learn how to manage our energy and stress levels.
Now, perhaps like you, I’ve done a little reading about and ‘had a go’ at mindfulness in the past, so I understand the science a bit and how it could help me. But I’ve just never found the time to follow through with the regular practise mindfulness needs to be effective.
So at the July Carers Bucks meeting, I found it very helpful when Sally explained in ‘carer focused’ terms how I and other carers could look after ourselves a bit more during the ‘acute’ moments we find ourselves in from time to time.
Sally explained how an old (in evolutionary terms) part of our brain, the amygdala, which is responsible for ‘fight or flight or freeze’ can, if we’re not mindful, hijack our rational thought with an emotional response that can cloud our thinking. While we can’t switch this part of our brain off, we can ‘shift’ it when it ambushes us.
Apparently we feel long term stress physically in our bodies first, but we tend to ignore these physical symptoms and battle on. For me, my shoulders get very tense, for you it might be something else eg headaches. Read my blog post #5 Looking After YOU for some additional help.
It’s often only when we are ambushed by emotional symptoms (like anger, frustration, hopelessness, resentment) that we start paying attention *guilty*.
Sally pointed out that while we may have no control over the stress resulting from how someone else is behaving or from their choices, we can choose how to react to it.
Here are her quick ‘in the moment’ tips that shift our emotional ‘fight/flight/freeze’ amygdala back to a more rational, problem solving frame of mind.
- ‘Scaling’ the challenge. For example, asking yourself ‘how am I feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 about this situation’ invites your rational brain to kick in. It’s intriguing how merely quantifying something stressful subdues an over-emotional brain.
- ‘Clenching’. If you find yourself angry, clench your fists and any/all other muscles you can summon in that moment to take control of the tense physical reaction. When you eventually relax, you will find the anger has eased.
- ‘Belly breathing’. When we breathe in, we tense and when we breathe out, we relax. So breathing in deeply (using our belly/diaphragm) to a count of 7 and out to a count of 11, for example, ‘forces’ us to relax.
- ‘Thumb blowing’. If another person is angry or upset, ask them to blow on your (or their) thumb! I’ve not tried this yet but I can see how it would be hard to stay angry while blowing on a thumb. Apparently this works well with angry children too. Who knew?
I used ‘scaling’ very recently, when one of Marj’s primary care workers was admitted to A&E. On top of other work and family commitments I had to step back into the hands-on care role while also finding a replacement to ensure Marj’s care worker did not feel pressure herself to come back to work too soon. Initially, I just couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed. Quickly remembering to scale immediately freed me to remind myself how I’d been in this situation many times before and had figured it out, which I went on to do.
I recommend you try these tips out too, let me know how it goes.
Helpful stuff you may be interested in:
This YouTube video by Braive (I’ve not used them, they’ve just made a good video!) explains our ancient ‘fight or flight or freeze‘ mechanism.
I like this animation by Alzheimers Society of Ireland.
Mind has some helpful tips for carers (from 2014)