THE BLOG
11/13/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Are You a Caregiver? Four Ways to Use Mindfulness to Boost Well-Being

Andrew Bret Wallis via Getty Images

By Adam Perlman, M.D.

Any way you look at it, the number of adults who regularly care for a sick or disabled family member is staggering. More than 40 percent of Americans -- that tops 240 million -- wear the mantle of caregiver, an emotionally, physically and mentally taxing job that usually goes unpaid and on top of other, full-time employment.

I am encouraged, however, by new research from Northwestern University suggesting that mindfulness practices can help both caregivers and their loved ones maintain their emotional well-being. This is important for two reasons. First, strong emotional well-being is a good defense against such stress-related problems as depression and anxiety.

Second, emotional well-being supports the resiliency that makes a person's life not just tolerable, but enjoyable and meaningful: restful sleep, invigorating exercise, healthful food and some form of spiritual or emotional nourishment.

In the study, patients with a range of memory disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, and their caregivers attended an eight-week mindfulness training program. After the training, a majority of participants reported lessened depression, better sleep quality, and overall better quality of life.

Keep in mind that the study was only eight weeks long. Caregivers and their loved ones experienced only eight sessions of mindfulness practice -- and still they reported positive results, as well as gratitude for experiencing the training.

Mindfulness Techniques for Caregivers and Loved Ones to Try

The primary mindfulness skill taught was attending to the present moment non-judgmentally. As lead study author Ken Paller put it, "Mindfulness involves attentive awareness with acceptance for events in the present moment." In other words, you stop wishing things were different and experience positive emotions about the present.

Mindfulness techniques are simple, extremely inexpensive, and easily done together. Here are four that may work well for both caregivers and their sick or disabled loved ones.

1. Wish someone well.

What to do: Think of two people, and do nothing but wish them happiness. The next day, take 10 seconds each hour to wish two different people well.

Why it works: It's a very simple act, seconds of an attention shift, that can make all the difference in the world. That's because your attention, and thus your thoughts, determine your peace of mind. Changing your mental channel creates a burst of warmth, energy, and peace--which happens when we turn our attention toward a) someone besides ourselves, and b) a positive thought. (Source: Chade-Meng Tan, Search Inside Yourself)

2. Learn a lovingkindness meditation

What to do: Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Think about what you wish for your life and come up with three or four phrases, such as "May I be comfortable. May I be happy. May I be filled with ease." Then repeat the phrases with the following changes:

  • Start with by directing the phrases at yourself: May I be happy.
  • Next, direct the phrases towards someone you feel thankful for or someone who has helped you.
  • Now visualize someone you feel neutral about--people you neither like nor dislike.
  • Visualize the people you don't like or who you are having a hard time with.
  • Finally, direct the phrases towards everyone universally: "May all beings everywhere be happy."

Why it works: This meditation is a longer form of wishing someone well, expanding your warmth, energy, and peace as far as you can imagine.

3. Do a body scan

What to do: Focus your attention along your body, from the toes to the top of your head, trying to be aware and accepting of whatever you sense in these body parts, without controlling or changing those feelings.

Why it works: You bring a nonjudgmental interpretation to your body, experiencing its sensations without trying to change them. This impartiality helps you observe your body, and your thoughts about it, with less negativity, and respond to difficulties with more peace.

4. Try the "raisin exercise"

What to do: As the The Greater Good Science Center explains, slowly use all of your senses, one after another, to observe a raisin in great detail, from the way it feels in your hand to the way its taste bursts on your tongue. You can experiment with different food.

Why it works: This exercise helps you focus on the present moment using the immediacy and intensity of food.

In the Northwestern study, caregivers and patients found that the mindfulness training actually helped improve their relationships with each other. Mindfulness places both people in the present and in positive emotion; the two sides share this experience with a bit of freedom from the baggage of their history. In the study, such gentle, positive interaction helped defuse the ongoing stress of a caregiver dynamic, and it helped build a stronger relationship in the present. Now that's powerful medicine.

Learn more useful information about stress and your health! Pre-order our forthcoming book, meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, co-authored by meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce, Adam Perlman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, and Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer.

Adam Perlman, M.D., is a co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of meQuilibrium, and the Executive Director for Duke Integrative Medicine. Dr. Perlman is a recognized leader in the field of Integrative Medicine and respected researcher and educator in the field of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) and wellness.