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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Wheeler, ND, DHANP

Essential Self-Care Practices for Caregivers: Supporting Yourself While Caring for Your Loved One

Updated: Feb 15

Helpful actions you can take to support your body and mind, even (especially) during times of stress


Sun setting at the Oregon Coast reflecting on waves
Oregon Coast Sunset

There’s a spot on the Oregon Coast that has always been a place of refuge and happiness for me. When I think of my personal happy place in an effort to block out the noise of the world around me, it’s there that I return to in my mind. During times of immense stress, loneliness, or exhaustion I have found myself longing for a reprieve; wanting to escape life’s burdens or commitments and sit quietly by the ocean, watching the waves crash in and out.


I imagine that most of us who’ve ever found ourselves in a position of caretaking would agree that this role can be both an honor and a sacrifice. In order to continue being there physically, mentally, and emotionally for our loved one, we have to make sure we’re also prioritizing time to take care of ourselves; we cannot fill from an empty cup. Here are some steps you can take to help care for your body and mind, especially during times of stress.




Nourishment Through Nutrition

When you're feeling exhausted and worn out, physically and/or mentally, nutrition is foundational. Eating nutrient-dense foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber will provide the necessary fuel your body and mind need during these tough times. A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables, a variety of different legumes (think beans, lentils, and peas), nuts, seeds, and complex whole grains can help balance blood sugar levels throughout the day, support your gut microbiome and immune system, and improve digestion - all of which can easily become dysregulated under times of prolonged stress. Making sure each meal includes adequate protein will also sustain your energy and stamina. If you don't have time for grocery runs, meal prep, and elaborate cooking, take advantage of grocery delivery services or even look into meal delivery options locally.


Get those Zzzs

Prioritizing sleep is absolutely necessary when we're feeling stressed and close to burn out. When we get enough sleep regularly, we're able to make decisions easier, have better reaction time, and are less volatile emotionally, all of which will be appreciated and noticed by your love one and those around you. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night whenever possible, and be asleep before midnight to support your body's natural circadian rhythm and stress hormones. If you're struggling to sleep due to anxiety or pain, work with a professional. If you'd prefer to explore natural sleep aid options instead of pharmaceuticals, look for a licensed naturopathic doctor or registered herbalist in your area.


Move It, Move It

Make time to move your body regularly. This will help improve mood, reduce stress levels, support better quality sleep at night, and can provide an opportunity to momentarily escape the worries and frustrations of the day. Movement and exercise can be an incredibly effective way of improving the mind-body connection through mindfulness. If you're not keen on working out in a traditional gym environment, or dislike group fitness classes, explore other forms of movement that bring you joy. Dancing, hiking, swimming, jumping on a trampoline or rebounder, rock climbing, and bike riding are all great options. If you'd prefer to workout in the comfort of your own home, download a fitness app or use YouTube. Aim for 150 minutes of movement per week, and feel free to break this up into 10 or 15 minute sessions 1-2 times per day if it's easier.


Breathe, Just Breathe

There are many fabulous forms of breath work that help relax the body and bring a sense of stillness to the mind. One of my favorite techniques is called "box breathing" - it's simple to learn and can safely and easily be done in almost any environment at any time of day. You can do this while seated, standing, or lying down and your eyes can be open or closed. Whatever feels the most comfortable and safe for the situation you're in is best. I recommend practicing new breath work techniques when you're feeling stable and safe to start; for some people, focusing on the breath when they're already feeling extremely anxious can exacerbate feelings of panic, which is obviously not the goal. So when you have time to practice, follow these steps:


1. Inhale fully for a count of 4 (you can breathe in through the nose or mouth)

2. Keep your lungs full for a count of 4

3. Exhale completely for a count of 4 (again, through the nose or mouth)

4. Keep your lungs empty for a count of 4

5. Repeat steps 1-4 a few more times, or for several minutes


Gratitude

The practice of gratitude can be profoundly helpful for maintaining your sanity and inner peace during times of stress. And yet, I know first-hand how absurd and potentially offensive the notion of someone telling you to "be grateful" at perhaps one of the worst or most challenging times of your life is. I also know how impactful and meaningful it can be during times of extreme hardship and loneliness to reflect on what and whom I'm thankful for in my life. Of all the recommendations here, this one may be the most challenging, and that's okay. Just remember you can try it out when you're ready. I wrote a whole blog post about the science behind gratitude if you'd like to read more.


Time in Nature

Spending time in nature can help to quiet the constant chatter of the mind and encourage relaxation physically as well. While many of us live in urban environments, finding a local park with trees and grass, an arboretum or botanical garden, or a nearby hiking trail can be a great opportunity to recharge. Bonus points if you have the ability to exercise outdoors too. I highly recommend trying to disconnect from electronics when spending time outdoors in nature; listen to the sounds around you, take in the scents, the feeling of the air on your skin. You might find that disconnecting from social media and pausing the podcast while being in nature helps bring a greater sense of calm and improved sleep later that night.


Be Willing To Ask For & Receive Help From Others

Okay, this one may actually be the hardest suggestion here. But it really is so important when you're in a position of caring for others. Please know it's not a sign of weakness or failure to ask for or receive help. Nor does it mean you're losing control over the situation. Sometimes getting help from a friend, family member, or colleague is a fantastic opportunity to ease your own load even a teeny bit. And other times, calling a professional is needed. This could be reaching out to a health care provider, connecting with a mental health specialist, or hiring someone to help you with cleaning the home.

It could also include taking advantage of services offered in your community through non-profit organizations such as Children's Cancer Network in Arizona. CCN's mission is to, "support children and families throughout their cancer journey with programs and services designed to provide financial assistance, promote education, encourage healthy lifestyles, and create an awareness of issues they face related to childhood cancer." You can contact them for more information if you're interested in working with them or donating to their cause. https://childrenscancernetwork.org/




Please know that you're not alone, and that you matter. We have to remember to take care of ourselves, especially when others are relying on us to help care for them too. Self-care is never selfish; you deserve the same love and kindness you show to others. Thank you so much for your dedication and courage.



 

Because you deserve to:

Be heard. Be healthy. Be well.




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