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Tips for Staying Healthy While Being a Caregiver for Someone Else

04/08/2015 05:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015
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The National Alliance for Caregiving estimates that each year 65.7 million Americans, or 29% of the adult population, provide care for an ill or disabled relative in their home. Furthermore, these family caregivers spend an average of 20 hours per week fulfilling the needs of their loved ones, in addition to all the other demands of work and home life. If you are one of these hardworking caregivers, or you know someone who is, read on to discover some important tips for self-care for those who care for others.

One of the most difficult aspects of being a caregiver for another person is finding time to take care of your own needs. Caregiving is an unpredictable, chaotic and continuous task so it can feel impossible to create a schedule that includes time for self-nurturing and rest.

But we know the truth of the old adage: "You cannot draw water from an empty well." In order to continue caring for those you love it is vitally important that you learn how to meet your own needs and "fill your own well." Otherwise, there will come a day when you have nothing left to give and everyone will suffer.

To make matters even more complicated, many of us who are drawn to become caregivers are very good at taking care of others and not so good at caring for ourselves. We have learned that it feels good to give and we excel at it, deriving satisfaction and meaning from our own acts of love toward other people.

This selfless giving is only a problem when we are unable to receive love and nurturing in return. We cannot be filled with love and continue to share it with others until we learn how to receive and hold love within us - allowing the well of love to be perpetually refilled and never exhausted.

Here are some tips for making sure that your inner well of love doesn't run dry:

1. Take several small "breathers" a day.

Even within the busiest schedule there are small moments when it is possible to escape the stress and chaos. One of the best ways to do this is to stop what you are doing and take 3 long, slow, deep breaths. That minute that you set aside for deep breathing is a mini-break for you, but it has a big payoff: deep breathing (particularly a long exhalation) helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the effects of stress. You'll feel calmer and more focused after this little break.

2. Eat a high protein snack once or twice a day.

Protein snacks help keep your blood sugar from swinging up and down, which can cause fatigue, headaches and irritability. When you nourish yourself with a small, healthy snack that is rich in protein you'll have more balanced energy and moods throughout the day. Try a small serving of cheese, turkey, nuts, a hardboiled egg, or an apple with almond or peanut butter.

3. Try the "legs on chair" yoga pose.

If you are able to take a slightly longer break - 5-10 minutes - try lying on your back on the floor with your legs from the knees down supported by a chair. Prop blankets under your legs if needed. This pose will help you relax instantly, take pressure off your spine and legs and leave you feeling refreshed.

4. Keep a journal.

It may seem that there is no time in a busy day for writing in a journal, but it is such a helpful practice that it is worth the small effort of getting started. Just find a small notebook and keep a pen attached. Before you go to bed at night spend a few moments jotting down your thoughts - perhaps about things that have happened during the day, the feelings you are dealing with, dreams you have had, or special moments you would like to remember.

You might make this a "Gratitude Journal" and simply list 3 things each day for which you are grateful. You will be surprised to see how a simple practice like focusing on gratitude helps provide you with more joy and positive energy during the day.

5. Find a new perspective.

Sometimes life is just really hard - in fact, it can "suck" as some people say. There are many occurrences in life over which we have no control, situations we cannot change, and losses we cannot forget. But we can shift our mindset and look at life from a different point of view.

My favorite shift is to take the "Galaxy view": look at life from the perspective of an astronaut flying through space. The Earth and all its troubles look very small from that view - life is short and fleeting and all our problems pass away very quickly. From this "big picture" view it may be easier to embrace whatever you are experiencing right now and create the most positive attitude you can possibly have in this moment.

Remember, above all, to be gentle with yourself if you are a stressed caregiver. Don't expect perfection from yourself; know that your best effort is enough. Let love flow into you without judgment or guilt and envision the well filling up to the brim. Then you will be able to love others from all of the abundance that you carry within and your well will never run dry.

Finally, I say thank you to you for your willingness to care for others. You make this world a much better place because of your generosity with your time, energy and spirit. May you feel the rich blessings that you have poured out to others returning to shower you with love one hundred times over.

To honor you for the loving care you give, please join me for Caregiver Appreciation Day on April 16, 2015. Attend a free webinar on "Practical Tools and Strategies to Recharge Your Caregiving Energy" and listen to an interview on "How to Nourish Yourself While Caring for Someone Else." When you register you will receive access to replays of both events so that you can listen on your own schedule.

About the Author:
(Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at www.karenwyattmd.com