Self-Care for the Caregiver
Mental health has become a hot topic as of late, and as a result I’ve noticed a positive shift in the way many people view and talk about mental health. However, it’s certainly a complex issue and there are still many misconceptions about mental illness, mental wellness and the huge spectrum in between. For caregivers, be it a family/friend caregiver or staff working in a care setting, monitoring one’s own mental health should be top of mind.
The World Health Organization defines overall health as being comprised of mental, physical and social wellbeing. Many people associate “being healthy” with only the physical component, perhaps not considering the other two pieces of the pie. Although we can divide health into these three separate pieces, they all interact with one another and we often see a domino effect when one of those pieces changes drastically either in a positive or negative way. For example, if I experience a physical health issue such as a broken leg, it probably won’t be solely my physical wellbeing that’s effected; if my mobility is limited, I may not be able to engage in activities that typically fuel my social wellbeing as easily as I normally would, such as enjoying outings with friends or taking my dog for a walk. As a result of this I might see a change in my mood and stress level—in other words, my mental health might suffer as well. Remembering that mental health is an essential component of overall wellbeing and understanding that these three elements are interwoven make it easier to appreciate why we should all have our finger on the pulse of our mental health day-to-day.
Life is stressful. What can we do to protect our mental wellbeing? To understand how self care relates to our mental health, I find it useful to draw on a relatable comparison with our physical health: there is no known strategy, medical intervention or any other type of “fix” that will prevent a heart attack. However, research tells us that there are lifestyle choices that may diminish our risk of having a heart attack, such as eating a well-balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity and managing our stress levels. In much the same way, anyone and everyone is susceptible to mental distress. There are factors that may be beyond our control and while we may not be able to completely eliminate our risk of experiencing a mental health problem there are absolutely things we can do to reduce the risk.
Many caregivers view taking time for themselves as being a selfish act, in some cases prioritizing their own self care behind the care they have committed to delivering to their patients, clients or loved ones. This is especially common among family caregivers. The habits I described earlier as being steps we might take to diminish our risk of having a heart attack are generally viewed as smart, healthy decisions. I can’t imagine anyone feeling guilty about opting for a salad instead of fast food, for example, or deciding to go for a jog instead of watching television. In the same way, we should not feel guilt for making positive choices that support our mental health. Taking steps to restore or maintain your mental wellbeing also means you’ll be able to provide care to others in a way that is satisfying, healthy and meaningful for both you and your care recipients. Remember the last time you were on an airplane, when the flight attendant gave the safety presentation before take-off? You might recall that they advised you, in the event of an emergency, to affix your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers. This is a great analogy for the way we should view our own self care in relation to providing care or support for others.
One of the great things about self care is that it’s something different for each of us. Effective self care means finding strategies that work for you. Put your thinking cap on and reflect on the last time your mood, stress level and general mental health were in a good place. When pressed, most people can come up with at least a few ideas of activities that have a positive effect on their mental health—the problem, generally, is in making time to do those things. Much like it takes time to get into the routine of exercising and preparing healthy food, forming a habit of prioritizing self care doesn’t happen overnight.
The first step to adopting a self care plan is reflecting on what it will look like and putting strategies in place that will allow you to integrate self care into your regular routine. Five to ten minutes most days might be a reasonable schedule to start with. Don’t forget to evaluate how effective your self care activities are, and don’t be afraid to switch things up along the way. For many people, when you start seeing the benefits of taking time for yourself, it’s not as hard to continue to carve out that time. Prioritize your own care with the same level of investment you feel for providing care to others. You deserve it!