Taking Care of Yourself While Caring for a Loved One: Your Body

A woman pushes another woman in a wheel-chair through a fall setting.

Caregivers are people of any age, gender, cultural background, economic level, and health status. The one thing that caregivers have in common is stress. Even in optimal situations, stress is part of almost every caregiver’s life.

Chronic stress impacts one’s body and immune system. If you are currently caring for a loved one you are probably experiencing some physical symptoms of caregiving. You may be losing or gaining weight, your body may have been injured by the rigors of caregiving, or you may have chronic pain. Headaches are also common. Most caregivers experience diminishing energy that may lead to complete exhaustion.

You have probably been told that unless you take good care of yourself, you will not be able give of yourself to others. But, do you take good care of yourself? Most caregivers don’t. They get so busy doing what has to be done that they often put their needs last on the list of priorities.

If you have been neglecting yourself, it would benefit both you and your loved one if you incorporate one or more of the following into your daily routine. These strategies are designed specifically for caregivers who have little time and low energy.

  • Be Careful: When you are stressed, you are easily distracted and therefore more prone to accidents. Slowing down helps. If you find yourself moving at the speed of light to get everything done, stop, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that being in a frenzy can only slow you down in the long run. It’s particularly important that you are attentive when you are driving. It is equally important to use caution around the house, especially in the kitchen and bathroom. What you don’t need is to cut or burn yourself, or slip in the bathtub. Be mindful and take it slow.
  • Get a Checkup: You are most likely more focused on your loved one’s health than your own. Stress takes a toll on your immune system so don’t ignore physical symptoms; get expert advice on your health. Prevention is your best friend. Be sure to get annual checkups and screenings to ensure that you are in optimal health. Along with visiting your health care provider, see your dentist and eye doctor on the schedule they suggest.
  • Eat Healthy: Even if you are not hungry or don’t have time, healthy food provides much-needed energy. Keep healthy snacks handy. You might even ask a friend to help you monitor your diet by helping you prepare easy, healthy meals.
  • Drink Water: You will feel better and your body will function better if you are well hydrated. The research is mixed about how much water to drink. Check with your health care provider to get an idea of how much water you should be drinking. Since you might not even realize you are thirsty, keep track of the amount your drink, until drinking the optimal amount becomes a habit.
  • Exercise: Research has shown that one of the best ways to manage stress is aerobic exercise. Talk with your health care provider about what kind, and how often exercise is good for you. Then do it! While getting away and going to a gym might be best, a ten minute walk outside, some stretching to release muscle tension, or even a little chair dance (sitting in a chair and moving your feet in time to some bouncy music) will help.
  • Rest: You must have sleep. Your caregiving duties may disrupt your sleep. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider if this is happening. Try a 15-minute power nap during the day to see if that helps you feel better.
  • Find Some Comfort: Warm drinks such as herbal tea or warm milk are soothing. Discover your “comfort” foods and have them available for a treat.
  • Relax: Listen to guided relaxation recordings. (You can find them at the library.) Locate someone to teach you relaxation exercises. (Your local hospital’s health education or wellness department may have this service.) Put on relaxing music when things get stressful or tense. Use a tabletop fountain to surround yourself with the relaxing sound of water.
  • Get a Massage: Treat yourself to a full body massage by a massage therapist. If anyone asks you what you need, tell him or her, “A back rub!” Buy yourself some peppermint foot lotion and give yourself regular foot massages.

These are just a few ways you can take care of your body to reduce stress caused by caregiving. Don’t try to do all of them. It would be too stressful! Try to incorporate one or two at first and then slowly add more. Caregivers often feel that everything is out of their control. Taking care of yourself is in your control. You just have to do it.

© Copyright 2011 by Karen Rowinsky, LSCSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ginny c

    February 4th, 2011 at 3:27 PM

    It is easy in these situations where you find yourself in the role of the care taker to let yourself go and to forget about taking care of yourself too. But in order to be of any benefit to anyone else you have to keep your own self strong too. Do the things that you love to do, exercise, and get out some with friends. No body ever said that you have to give up everything in your life when you are taking care of someone else. It may feel as if you have to but I think that we all know that this is probably the worst thing that you can do for everyone.

  • Ally

    February 4th, 2011 at 11:28 PM

    My gran’ma stays with us and my mom is always running around looking after her.She gets stressed often and her blood pressure levels have risen over the past couple of years.I keep telling her to look after herself and be relaxed because she is not missing out on doing anything.But she just doesn’t listen.What options do I have to convince my mom?Please suggest.

  • Savannah

    February 5th, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    You have to learn to take of yourself body, mind and soul. All depend on the other.

  • Rod

    February 6th, 2011 at 6:29 AM

    As a son who has nursed both parents to health after extensive surgeries I have to tell you that the last thing you are often thinking about are your own needs whether physical or emotional. You simply do what you feel you need to do as a child and you keep going and going until you can’t anymore. I got so run down during both of those periods in my life but those were my parents. What else are you supposed to do?

  • Karen Rowinsky

    February 6th, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    Ginny C., you are right on. Sounds like you have had to learn this lesson! Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Karen Rowinsky

    February 6th, 2011 at 3:53 PM

    Ally, it is hard, if not impossible, to convince someone of anything. I know how frustrating and worrisome it can be to see someone running themselves ragged and not taking care of their own health. You might try setting up a regular time to “spell” your mom and spend time with your gran’ma so that your mom can attend to her self care. Sometimes the best you can do is gently show her articles on how important it is for caregivers to care for themselves and let your mom know how concerned you are about her.

  • Karen Rowinsky

    February 6th, 2011 at 6:13 PM

    Savannah, you are so right! My next posts feature taking care of your mind and soul. I divided the tips up this way so that they are not so overwhelming.

  • Karen Rowinsky

    February 6th, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    Rod, what a good son you are! I know it seems impossible to do anything but caregiving but as you learned, it takes its toll. I hope you won’t have to do it again but if you do, try to find some time to nurture yourself so you can provide for your parents in the way you want without sacrificing your own health.

  • Jacqueline

    February 7th, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    Karen, thank you for the suggestions. The thing is, many of them demand that you take time away from the one you’re caring for, like going for a walk or to the gym, or getting a massage or a check-up. When you’re a sole carer, how is it possible to achieve that when you have no-one to take the reins in your absence? I’d love to hear practical ideas on that side of it please. I think that’s what prevents many caregivers from doing the things they need to to stay strong themselves physically, emotionally and mentally. They simply can’t leave the person alone for more than a few minutes at a time.

  • Gabriel

    February 7th, 2011 at 6:59 PM

    I remember reading advice on a similar topic that was basically saying that if you can’t take care of yourself and another person at the same time, you shouldn’t do it. Easier said than done though when it’s a loved one. The role of caregiver can be one of the most difficult tasks to cope with if they don’t seem to or are not getting better.

  • Chase

    February 9th, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    Somebody isn’t going to suddenly die if you take a few hours to get some sleep and eat something, or at least it’s highly unlikely. You can’t predict that happening any more than the rest of us can. If they are in that kind of danger, then taking care of them by yourself is most probably beyond your scope and it’s time to refer this to the medical professionals. Keeping yourself sane and unstressed makes it a lot easier to take care of people. You need to make that a priority as much as you do them.

  • Richard

    February 9th, 2011 at 5:49 PM

    Caregivers, ask yourself this: if the roles were reversed, would you want your caregiver to be so stressed? If I became too much of a handful, I would want mine to put me in a hospital or home where I can be taken care of and nobody would need to worry about looking after me round the clock. I’ve already told my family they’ll get no argument from me if and when that time comes, and if I have Alzheimers, they will know in their hearts I agree with what they are doing and have no reason to feel guilty about it. We only get one life and we all should live it to the fullest, caregivers too.

  • Karen Rowinsky

    February 12th, 2011 at 7:00 PM

    Gabriel, Chase, and Richard – I appreciate your comments and think they will be helpful to other readers! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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