The caregiving journey is often long and intense; marked by challenging circumstances, unclear choices and uncertain outcomes.
- Bill’s wife has been battling cancer for years. Should she participate in a research study on a new form of chemotherapy? As a wife and mother of three teens, they desperately want her to live. Bill knows this would be grueling for the whole family and the odds for a cure are not good.
- After six years, Elsa is exhausted, and wonders if she should listen to her adult children’s advice. They want her to place their Dad in a dementia unit, but Elsa is troubled by her promise to never put him in a nursing home.
- ALS is progressing rapidly in Amy’s Mom. She now needs total care, and this once vibrant, funny woman can no longer speak. Amy wonders how much worse it can get, how much longer this will go on and how much more she can take.
How about you? Are you feeling overwhelmed or out of control like Bill, Elsa and Amy? If you’re mentally or emotionally exhausted, working with your mind can help you build resilience and restore balance.
Use Your Mind to Build Resilience
Throughout history, some of the world’s wisest writers, philosophers, and humanitarians have advised us to respect the power of our thoughts.
- Ideas are the source of all things.~ Plato
- We are what we think; all that we are arises in our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.~ Buddha
- Man often becomes what he believes himself to be.~ Mahatma Gandhi
- Change your thoughts and you change your world.~ Norman Vincent Peale
21st century research bears out the wisdom of the ages. In a study tracking 30,000 adults for eight years, those who experienced a lot of stress and who believed stress is harmful to health had a 43% increased risk of dying. Those who experienced a lot of stress but did NOT view stress as harmful were no more likely to die that the general population. Echoing Dr. Peale’s words, health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal says, “Changing your mind about stress can change your body’s response to stress.” View her TED Talk video, How to Make Stress your Friend at: http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend)
Today’s positive psychology researchers have demonstrated the resilience-building benefits of optimism. In Resilience, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney (2012) report on multiple studies that describe how optimistic thinking improves both physical and mental health. Optimists tend to be more satisfied with life, cope more actively with stress, and experience stronger immunity to infectious diseases and better health.
For more on how thoughts form our character, circumstances and health, read inspirational writer James Allen’s 1902 classic, As a Man Thinketh at: http://james-allen.in1woord.nl/
How Caregivers Can Stay Positive
Research shows that some simple mental strategies can successfully build resilience and preserve good health. The two practices described below have been proven to boost resilience.
1. Realistic Optimism
If you paint in your mind a picture of bright and happy expectations, you put yourself into a condition conducive to your goal. ~ Norman Vincent Peale
Optimism and pessimism are choices about how to look at the world, powerful thought patterns that are in part genetic, but can be changed with practice. Where pessimists are stopped by adverse conditions, unrealistic optimists are Pollyanna’s who unwisely plunge ahead, ignoring real needs or threats.
Instead of these approaches to life, choose realistic optimism, a lens that promotes clear thinking that acknowledges reality. Staying optimistic is strongly related to resilience; it promotes good health, successful relationships and strength to handle adversity.
Practice these thought patterns to think like an optimists:
- Count your blessings: Recognize all the good in your life and expect more to come. View negative experiences as isolated events or flukes that are unlikely to be repeated.
- Take credit: See that your efforts have brought good into your life. Recognize how actions of others, or factors beyond your control have contributed to your difficulties.
- Expect more good: Envision positive events continuing or being repeated in the future. Dismiss negative ones as unlikely to happen again.
- Emphasize the positive: No matter what the facts of the situation, think positive thoughts, but don’t deny reality.
For more on optimism: http://www.prevention.com/mind-body/emotional-health/pessimists-guide-being-optimistic
2. Positive Self-Talk
When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself. ~Plato
Positive psychology researchers tell us that about 90% of our happiness is linked to our outlook on life. When exhausted, depressed or out of control, thoughts often turn negative. In times like these, you can build resilience by paying attention to “self-talk” — the silent conversations running through your head about yourself and the world around you. It powerfully shapes your feelings, energy and resilience.
What are you thinking when things are going well or are falling apart; or when caregiving is uncertain or overwhelming? When a negative thought comes, refocus on any other thought. (When at the hospital waiting to hear results of surgery read a good book, or talk with someone about something other than your worries.) The mind can’t think two thoughts at the same time.
Also try replacing negative self-talk with positive thoughts. (Replace, “This is awful! I can’t handle this anymore!” with a more empowering, “This may not be good, but I’ll manage.”)
Whatever you do to eliminate negative thoughts can help reduce anxiety and depression.
Finally, when something positive happens, stop and savor it. (Despite the dementia we enjoyed a wonderful walk at the beach this morning, and were both so happy to enjoy the view.) Reinforce a positive experience by thinking more encouraging thoughts. (I did so well juggling my work and caregiving today; I know I’ll be able to do it again.)
- On self-talk: http://www.webmd.com/balance/express-yourself-13/positive-self-talk?page=1
- On how to turn negative thoughts into positive ones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpedWDuwGzI
Mental Strategies for Resilient Caregivers
The ideas of optimism and positive self-talk aren’t difficult, but choosing them can be. “Blind-spots” can get in the way of recognizing unhealthy thought patterns; often it’s easier to blame others or fate for problems.
Changing ingrained patterns can be very hard, especially when feeling worn down by the challenges of caregiving. Use these mental strategies to boost your resilience and preserve your capacity to care. Whatever you do to practice realistic optimism and positive self-talk will be good for both you and those in your care. As you do so much for others, remember to take good care of yourself, too….Jane