Stress Support For Unpaid Carers

Your life is not quite your own is it? Finding a little respite seems a challenging task and you feel guilty and selfish for wanting some time out. You’re doubting yourself and questioning whether you’re doing a good enough job and are finding it all a little overwhelming.

Consider then for a moment that, on top of the day to day practical, physical caring duties, the strenuous, repetitive, necessary activities you are completing for your loved one, you are carrying around all of the above feelings of self-doubt, selfishness, guilt, and overwhelm. Add to this a potential for feeling pressured, sad, frustrated, resentful, trapped, worried and even self-pitying (you’re allowed) and you’re not left in the greatest of emotional places to be fully connected with your role. And when your mood is low and you’re feeling you’re not up to the job, you feel guilty again.

How stressful does it all feel? It’s useful to consider your stress. What is it telling you? The stress is evidence that you are trying your best, that you care, that you’re committed to the task at hand, that you’re strong and resilient because, despite the stress, you continue anyway.

You’ll no doubt have been told that you must look after yourself as well. Well-meaning individuals, personally and professionally, will tell you that your health is just as important and you must practice self-care on a regular basis. But when do you find the time?

In order to reduce stress, we must teach our bodies, and our minds, how to relax. This does take some commitment and you’ve got enough on your plate without taking the time to consider what this means for you.

You’ve perhaps given up work and hobbies, you can’t imagine sitting down to read or watch a TV program, the best you can manage is a good night’s sleep after an exhausting day, but maybe you’re not even getting that? You might be sat thinking you’ll not even reach the end of this article! So let me get on with it….

It is important to ensure you’re meeting your own needs as well as the needs of others, if not more so in order to keep your strength up for those tasks that need to be done, of course it is, but it is understandable if you’ve given up any idea of being able to do this.

So let me ask you then, have you considered the alternative, less time-consuming, simple ways you can find some sense of freedom and relaxation in those brief moments you have between tasks, or even during tasks? Let me talk you through it.

Firstly though, ask yourself this question – how long can my loved one realistically manage without me? 5 minutes? Half an hour? 2 hours?

Then ask yourself if you’re spending your potential down time continuing to do even more for your loved one in order to help you feel more organised, more in control, or less guilty, etc. This is hugely important. You ARE allowed to spend a little time on you, guilt free. You’re doing your best. Nobody is perfect. How much time can you allow yourself?

If you’ve got a good chunk of time to yourself on a regular basis then great, write yourself a list of all the things you might do that will give you pleasure and commit yourself to them. Remind yourself that, in looking after yourself, you’re giving a better version of you to your loved one and can therefore offer them more.

If you don’t feel you have the time for a fun or relaxing activity, are you neglecting to consider the opportunity to do this WITH your loved one? They have a need for fun and relaxation themselves so why not do this together? Having fun with someone you love, listening to a piece of music with them, closing your eyes and visualising something funny or tremendously relaxing will do you both the world of good.

And between those tasks and activities and your other day to day responsibilities, you can try these 10 quick and simple in-the-moment techniques to instantly relax the brain which in turn relaxes the body, which in turn relaxes you:

  1. An obvious one, and we unconsciously do it all the time, breathe. But find meaning in your breathing. Zone in. We can control our breathing, the depth and speed of it. When we breathe in, the air is cold at our nostrils or in our teeth, when we breathe out, it is warm. We can feel it fill our lungs and physically see the body’s response in raising our chest to accommodate this. Can you breathe in a way that makes your stomach move? That lifts and relaxes your shoulders? We only need a very short amount of time to breathe in the fresh air and breathe out the stresses of the day.
  2. Deliberately tensing our muscles also helps us focus on the impact of stress on our bodies. If we squeeze our fingers into our hands and tighten the muscles in our arms and consider our biggest stresses and then relax the fingers and imagine the stress flowing out through them, the rest of our body follows suit, it relaxes. This can be done alongside the breathing exercises.
  3. Play a song that really gets your juices flowing – you could actually do this all of the time and it might give you additional energy in your day-to-day role. But alone, you can ‘dance like no-one is watching.’ This is enormously freeing and, the more over the top you are, the more you will laugh, and the more at ease your brain will feel. Things are okay in that moment, you are safe, your loved one is safe, and you are indulging in a little light fun. A bit of exercise also gets those happy chemicals in the brain going.
  4. If you’re a hugger, hug! The power of a hug can’t be overestimated, the physical connection with another person reduces that sense of isolation that you may be feeling in your responsibilities. Even if there’s nobody around, you can give yourself a hug and self-soothe. Not quite as powerful but your brain will still thank you for it.
  5. Have a little cry, or scream into your pillow, or punch something that won’t damage your knuckles. Letting the all-consuming powerful emotions out is tremendously important. Your body needs it. Your emotions exist for a reason, and that reason is to make you stop and think and do something for yourself. Listen to what they are telling you and then let them out.
  6. Tune in to your body and how it works for you, the muscles you are using, the physical strength you have, the great job your feet and legs are doing in moving you around, how often your brain makes you blink to keep your eyes healthy – count the seconds, do more, do less. Focusing on the body takes your mind away from other thoughts and is a great distraction from stress and other difficult emotions whilst you’re busy in those moments.
  7. Focus individually on all your senses as often as you can. Tune in fully to the smell and taste of your food, the sounds and the sights outside the window, the feel of a chair beneath you as you sit and take a little break. As much as it’s sometimes good to focus on you, it does us just as much good to connect with everything around us. What are you so used to seeing or hearing that it’s got lost somewhere? That picture on the wall, the ticking of the clock etc? You are a part of your environment so take some time to connect with it as you walk down the hallway or cook a meal or have a shower….
  8. Have a shower! But again, feel it. A shower serves a purpose in getting us clean and feeling fresh. What does this mean? Do we really feel fresh or are we treating showering as another task to be done? Use it to your advantage, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. The temperature of the water, the sensation of the spray on your face and your shoulders, the aromas of the shampoo and the soap, it’s a little slice of heaven that we don’t take enough advantage of. Enjoy it! You could even play some music and tune in your ears as well! Indulge in an extra 5 seconds when you’re finished.
  9. Experience each and every task. Again, if you’re simply doing it without thinking about it, it becomes mundane. How are you doing it? Can you do it differently today? Can you add anything to it? Can you make it more enjoyable? Can you create a little song to go along with it? How much can you involve your loved one in the task at hand? Can you mix it up and do everything in a different order today?
  10. Be kind to yourself. Remind yourself of how committed you are, how much your loved one is benefitting from your love and attention, how selfless you are being, what a great job you’re doing (find evidence for this if you don’t quite believe it) and consider what you are getting in return. A sense of satisfaction? Pride? Appreciation? Love? A deeper connection to another human being? How does your role impact you positively? Gaining a balanced perspective will help you remember the good bits when the bad bits feel overwhelming.

You’re doing amazing. Be proud of yourself. And treat your brain to some short bursts of fun and relaxation as often as you possibly can. It will make the world of difference to how you feel.

This article was contributed by Tracy McCadden, an experienced Psychotherapist and owner of Clarendon Counselling, a therapeutic service offering support and positive outcomes to clients in need of an individual space to explore their challenges and their emotions.

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