When you’re a caregiver, your own self-care often takes a backseat. Often it feels out of reach. After all, you have serious, important, time-consuming responsibilities, on top of your other serious, important, time-consuming responsibilities, like work, kids, bills, and everything else.
But here’s the thing: You’re important, too.
Yet where do you start? How do you care for yourself amid the everything?
You might feel so overwhelmed that you become paralyzed and don’t do anything at all for yourself.
For insight, I spoke with Daniela Paolone, LMFT, a psychotherapist and chronic pain and illness coach who supports those impacted by invisible illnesses, chronic pain, anxiety and medical trauma both in person and online. She also lives with a rare chronic illness.
Below, she shares three different challenges caregivers may face, along with how you can compassionately navigate them, and much more.
You are stressed out and exhausted, and you’re furious with yourself, with your loved one who needs care, and with your overwhelming situation. And this anger is inevitably followed by guilt, and thoughts that you’re a horrible person.
However, as Paolone said, “it is completely understandable, valid and natural for caregivers to experience a variety of emotions when taking on the role of caregiver.” Also, your feelings of anger, frustration and resentment may be signs of grief. You might be grieving the loss of your past life before your loved one got sick, when you had more time, space and freedom, she said. “The grieving process is unique to everyone, and there is no timeline on how long it takes to grieve.”
Paolone stressed the importance of feeling all your feelings, whatever shape or form they take. These feelings don’t make you a bad or flawed person, she said. They “make you human.”
Caregivers can be incredibly hard on themselves, Paolone said. “They put a lot of pressure on themselves and when they are not able to meet their own expectations, the inner critic shows up.” And when these critical thoughts go unchecked, she said, they only intensify. Paolone shared just some of the critical thoughts caregivers have:
- “I am not doing enough.
- I should not have done (X activity) because (person needing caregiving) was at home alone and lonely.
- I am a selfish person for only thinking about how my life has changed when they are the one with a debilitating condition.
- I am a bad person for having these thoughts.
- I just want a break from it all and run away from all of this and I am a terrible person for thinking this way.
- I get so angry that our lives have changed and I know I take my anger out on them. I can’t seem to help doing it. I am a terrible person.”
When critical thoughts arise, Paolone suggested focusing on your strengths and jotting down what went well. Focus on what you did accomplish, big or small. For instance, maybe you completed two tasks from your expanding to-do list, because you fell asleep in the afternoon. But that nap felt really good. According to Paolone, this is an accomplishment and it’s productive. You listened to what your body needed, “which is so important for all caregivers to practice so that they maintain their health and mental stamina throughout the care-taking process.”
You can make jotting down your accomplishments into a daily journaling practice. Then you can turn some of the statements into affirmations, Paolone said. You could read these affirmations to yourself as you listen to relaxing music for several minutes each day, she said. “This is a great way to promote calm within the body and encourage more positive self-talk, which will counteract any critical thoughts that arise.”
You also can interpret your critical thoughts as important information that you’re too stressed out. This is an opportunity to add relaxing activities to your schedule. This might mean spending some time alone (if possible), or taking mini self-care breaks (more on that below).
Financial challenges are often a reality, because caregivers might need to work fewer hours, and their loved ones might no longer be able to work, which can spark more pressure to manage ongoing medical expenses, Paolone said.
What can help is to have a support system, consisting of friends, family, colleagues and medical staff. Talk to your support team about what resources you and your loved one might qualify for. Ask them to help you “research local organizations and funding opportunities which could also help with financial support.”
Set up a schedule, so you aren’t the only person taking care of your loved one. “This gives you as the caretaker time to prepare some meals, go to the grocery store with coupons or even do some work to bring in additional income,” Paolone said. Depending on your situation, this also can reduce the need to hire professional caretakers.
Paolone also suggested connecting with local hospitals, medical organizations and advocacy groups. And some hospitals will reduce bills if you agree to a payment plan, and paying in cash can reduce the total hospital bill, as well.
Other Self-Care Strategies
Paolone recommended working with a therapist and/or attending a caregiver support group. These are “great ways to be reminded that your thoughts, needs and feelings are important.” You might carve out 10 minutes a day to sit down and write about your thoughts and feelings, too.
Another option is to have a caregiver partner. Every day, you take turns talking about what’s on your mind. As Paolone said, “All of these approaches help caregivers realize that they are not alone in this experience, and that it is important to talk about it with people who understand what they are going through.”
And remember that there are all kinds of self-care. You can fit mini self-care sessions into your day, such as taking 3 to 5 minutes to practice deep breathing or listen to a guided meditation. This actually creates more time and less overwhelm. As Paolone said, “When we are stressed, [the critical thinking parts] of the brain are not fully accessible so making decisions and working through the list of to-dos is much harder and likely takes more time to complete.”
When you’re a caregiver, caring for yourself may feel like an extra task on your to-do list. And who wants that?
But really self-care is a meaningful way to nourish yourself, to meet your needs, to be kind and compassionate to yourself when you inevitably struggle, to appreciate your humanity, and to protect your own heart.