Stress and Caregiving (originally posted on 23 Mar 2016)

July 30, 2022

*A repost of a blog Justin wrote on The Simple Things on 23 March 2016 (pre TBI)

I’ve touched on this before, but one of the key points made, both when going through the training requirements to join the VA caregiver program and by the nurses who do our home visits, is managing stress.  I mentioned it a previous post but it’s worth repeating that I honestly didn’t believe it would be a big deal and I was very wrong.  As a caregiver, it’s vital that you take care of yourself and don’t fall into the trap of giving all your attention, all of the time, to the person you’re caring for.  You must find time for yourself to decompress and relieve your own stress.  What you do and how you choose to do it will be unique to everyone.  For me personally, I’ve found my return to the gym last year is a vital part of my life that I need to insure I include regularly.  Doing this particular activity I get not only the emotional and mental benefits that lifting weights provides, but it also helps me physically.  Being down for the past 3 months following surgery has only reaffirmed how important it is for me to make time for this at least two or three times per week.

Another activity that provides me a great deal of satisfaction and stress relief is spending time outside working, especially running a chainsaw.  The house we bought is very enclosed by trees with almost no yard or even area for the dog to get out and run without risk of injury.  We also have a wood stove to help offset the heating costs during the winter that will require feeding.  In this case, I have a double whammy of good fortune because we have work that requires accomplishing that doubles as a chance to ignore the outside world and relieve stress and decompress.  As with the gym, this is something that’s not only mentally refreshing but physically as well. To me my physical and mental well-being go hand in hand.

Of course my two examples of relieving stress are not going to work for everyone.  You have to find not just what’s right for you but what’s right for you in your situation.  While some people think that my caretaking responsibilities seem difficult, I feel compared to what others are faced with and going through, we’re relatively well off.  Sure Shawna has her bad days, and even really bad days but she doesn’t require the constant care that others do.  When I think of someone who’s providing care to those with serious brain or spinal injuries, illness, cognitive disorders, ect my heart goes out to them.  For those who do not have the benefit of the VA caregiver program, who are doing it while holding down employment and others while trying to raise their own families and with zero of the other benefits the caregiver program provides such as training and outreach, I can’t express my appreciation for what you do enough.  I feel as though I only get a taste of the stress those folks are under and my hat’s off to them for the herculean task they undertake when they agree to accept that responsibility. For those folks, finding activities that help them to decompress and relieve stress is especially vital.

For the most part I really have no idea who reads this blog.  Going off the assumption that you’re not a caretaker, stress is an important thing to manage in your life too.  Find something you enjoy, that makes you feel good, and leaves you feeling energized.  It certainly doesn’t have to be lifting weights or cutting wood. Perhaps yoga is your thing.  Maybe bird watching. Reading, writing, playing pool, going for a walk with the dog, hitting the spa for a tan and a massage.  The point is to get your focus off the stressor and onto something that stimulates you positively.  That makes your brain fill with something you enjoy or shuts it off entirely.  To get the weight of life off yourself for a short amount of time so that when you get back to it, you’re starting fresh.  This not only benefits you but the people around you.  In the case of a caretaker the importance of this can’t be understated.  If you’ve taken on this roll you’ve likely done it out of love.  They deserve to have you at your best to whatever extent possible and you, yes you, deserve to be at your best as well.

A trap I fell into and many other’s do as well, is the willingness to care for others without taking the time to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.  You get amazingly wrapped up in their needs and neglect yourself. This works for awhile but eventually you’ll fail.  There is a story I’ve seen many times that helped me understand this concept more thoroughly: You’re on a plane with your kids and for some reason the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks fall.  Your instinct tells you to get their mask on first. However, your instinct in this case is wrong.  You’d be better off putting your mask on first, thus insuring that you’re not overcome by the situation before you can help them.  Caretaking is the same way. If you break down you’ll be unable to do your duties properly and proficiently the same way that if your oxygen is cut off in a plane you’ll be unable to aid your children.  While as caretakers we’ve made the choice to make someone else’s needs a high priority in our life, we must make sure that we’re meeting our own needs at an equal too, if not greater than, rate required.

If you’re a caretaker and reading this and haven’t yet figured out how to take time for yourself (especially without feeling guilty), I hope the words in this post are the release you need to know that it’s ok, you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to feel guilty about, and that it’s actually a beneficial use of your time. I know you have appointments to handle, dishes in the sink, laundry waiting to be completed, and perhaps some more in-depth tasks that are in-need of accomplishing.  Sit down and figure out what can wait while you refresh.  Are there some tasks that can’t wait (handing out meds, helping them to the bathroom, ect)?  Of course.  But I’m willing to bet if those tasks are not on an absolute regular schedule, they’re pretty close and you know that waking up in the morning.  Where you have some time during the day is when you’re loved one may be sleeping.  Or, the dishes and laundry wait a little longer before getting done.  Perhaps you sit down and schedule your days more thoroughly so you have time to relax built in, if not everyday, a few days per week.  Take advantage of other human resources that are willing to help.  It’s OK to accept an offer to step in and give you a break, even if it’s only for an hour here and there.

Dealing with stress is something everyone from all walks of life has to contend with.  Most of us are not all that good at it and often times we tend to stress about things that in the long run aren’t really that important. However, finding ways to manage that stress is vital to our mental, physical, and emotional health.  Sure regurgitating saying’s like, “don’t sweat the small stuff”, can make one feel better and more in control but those are just words and while words no doubt can have an amazing impact on people, telling yourself something is true does not make it so.  The best way to handle stress is from a position of strength and to be strong, you need to take the time to relieve that stress.  So get out there and find something you enjoy, something your passionate about, something that allows you to forget the world around you and focus on the task at hand. You’re loved one will be thankful and just as important, you’ll be thankful too.

Written By Justin B.

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