Caring for a loved one can be deeply rewarding, but can also be demanding and draining.
- As her husband’s Parkinson’s has progressed, Mary Lou has become consumed with providing for all aspects of his safety, comfort and physical care. Mary Lou feels alone and so overwhelmed that a task as simple as getting to the grocery store now seems nearly impossible.
- John feels deeply sorry and terribly guilty for losing his temper with his wife. He knows her repeated questions are part of dementia, but John struggles to control his reaction, especially when he’s tired.
- Insomnia is becoming a real problem for Leslie, who feels upset following nightly visits with her parents. Yes, they’re safe, but their finances, forgetfulness and growing health concerns weigh on her mind and keep her up at night.
How about you? Are you feeling drained by emotions or situations like these? If you’re finding it difficult to retain a healthy balance because of family caregiving responsibilities, using mindfulness principles can help.
Mindfulness is a way to reduce anxiety and create inner calm. It involves being attentive to present thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and surroundings; accepting these without judgment and without letting thoughts anxiously focus on past or future concerns. Mindful breathing and mindfulness meditation are two key methods for reducing anxiety and creating inner calm.
Earliest work on mindfulness was done by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. His Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program was started at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979; it is now offered as a complementary therapy in hundreds of health care organizations around the world. Decades of research prove that practicing mindfulness boosts immunity; reduces stress, anxiety and depression; improves memory and mental focus; reduces emotional reactivity; and deepens compassion and altruism.
Recent research on brain neuroplasticity shows that mindfulness actually changes the brain in positive ways. It supports self-regulation and effective decision-making, and protects the brain from toxic stress. Because the brain’s emotional and thinking circuits are linked, it promotes resilience by helping restore emotional balance after a setback.
In addition, take the Mindfulness Quiz to assess how mindful you are, then try the three suggestions below to build family caregiver resilience.
Mindfulness Practices that Build Resilience
You breathe continuously, usually without awareness. Practice observing your breath without reacting; simply attend to it and feel it without attempting to change it. By intentionally focusing on your breath you can ground yourself in the present moment.
Deep breathing lowers your heart rate, anxiety and muscle tension. It is the easiest way to elicit the relaxation response. In moments of high stress, pay attention to your breathing; breathe slowly and deeply from your abdomen. For the on-going stress of family caregiving, make it a practice to breathe slowly and deeply for at least three minutes every day.
Try this deep breathing activity to calm yourself and reenergize. Despite the busyness of daily schedules, or perhaps because of it, taking time for silence is critical to a family caregiver’s well-being. You don’t need hours; even a few minutes will help. Follow these steps:
- Go to a quiet space where you will not be interrupted. Turn off the radio, television, computer, beeper and phone. Settle into a comfortable chair or sofa. Place your feet on the ground or put your feet up, if you like. Close your eyes.
- Take in a deep breath from way down in your belly; fill your lungs and slowly exhale. Slowly repeat this several times and feel yourself start to relax. Continue sitting quietly, breathing deeply, rhythmically, slowly. Clear your mind of all thoughts by focusing on inhaling and exhaling. Breathe in peace and calm. Breathe out tension and pain.
- When your mind starts wandering and thinking of other things, as it certainly will, gently refocus on inhaling and exhaling. Maintain a passive attitude; don’t judge or get upset about these thoughts. Simply notice them; picture them as balloons and let them float away. Refocus on breathing in peace and calm; breathing out tension and pain.
- Start by spending three minutes a day on this deep breathing activity. Work up to twenty minutes.
- When the time is up, gradually open your eyes and pay attention to the feeling of calm.
There are many exercises for developing mindful breathing. Check this link for guidance from wellness expert, Dr. Andrew Weil.
The STOP Exercise
Mindfulness practices help you break out of thoughts on “auto-pilot” and disengage from worries. One of the simplest, the STOP exercise, can be used whenever you experience stress, but is best done regularly, “sprinkled throughout your day.” STOP is an acronym that tells you what to do:
- STOP what you’re doing.
- TAKE some slow, deep breaths. Focusing on your sensations when breathing in and out will reconnect you to the present moment and disconnect you from racing thoughts.
- OBSERVE what is going on within you. Notice feelings, thoughts and body sensations:
- PROCEED with your day with this new awareness and kindness, perhaps doing something helpful to relieve your physical or emotional tension, or doing something kind for others. This moment of mindfulness, like a mini-meditation, can be done in less than a minute. When used several times a day, it can help you remain calm and focused; STOP can help preserve the precious energy and compassion you need for family caregiving.
- What emotions am I feeling?
- What thoughts are in my mind?
- How do different parts of my body feel?
- When you notice thoughts and emotions, let them go.
Check out this video for a brief overview of the STOP exercise.
Formal meditation practice is rooted in ancient Buddhism, and because of its holistic health benefits, has been adopted by western culture. It is a simple technique that can be learned in a group setting. In MBSR, students meet for two-to-three hours per week for eight weeks, practicing at home between classes; it has helped tens of thousands of people build mindfulness and enhance their health.
Mindfulness meditation can also be self-taught. For guidance, read Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Mindfulness meditation is practiced sitting upright on a chair with eyes closed, or cross-legged on a cushion. Attention is focused on breathing in and out, as described above in the breathing activity. Instead of the breath, a word or phrase may be chosen as a focal point, e.g. “God,” “peace,” or “I am loved.”
Thoughts that arise are recognized in an accepting, non-judgmental way; then focus is returned to the breath, word or phrase. Those who practice meditation often start with a short periods of 10 minutes each day. With regular practice, time spent meditating is extended; it becomes easier to keep focused attention and to experience the calming benefits of meditation.
Psychology Today presents an overview of meditation HERE.
Try this video to experience a brief guided meditation.
Mindfulness Practices for Resilient Family Caregivers
Mindfulness practices aren’t complicated, but some people are reluctant to try them. The idea of mindfulness may seem like brainwashing or “crazy, New Age mumbo-jumbo,” but that’s not the case. Daily mindfulness meditation requires commitment and self-discipline. Don’t let skepticism or old habits hinder you from experiencing the physical, emotional and mental benefits of mindfulness.
If you or a loved one have any mindfulness practices that you’d like to share with others, please put them below in the comments.
Use these mindfulness practices to boost your resilience and preserve your capacity to care. Whatever you do to live in a calmer, more mindful way 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