It’s no secret that for most individuals, stress levels have gone through the roof in recent months, as the risk of COVID-19 coupled with stay-in-place guidelines have cramped our style and turned life as we knew it upside down.
While everyone certainly deserves a pat on the back for navigating through the chaos of COVID-19, the true heroes during the pandemic have been the caregivers – from the doctors and nurses dealing with COVID-19 patients to those caring for the health-challenged at home.
The very nature of a caregiver is putting the needs of others above one’s own. While such selflessness is admirable, it’s very important for caregivers to give themselves some love to avoid burnout and to remain effective in their roles. This includes attending to their own physical, mental, social, and emotional needs.
Because they are so caught up in the demands of their work, some caregivers are unaware of their levels of stress. Warning signs of physical symptoms to look for include lack of energy, overwhelming fatigue, headaches, unexplained pain, changes in sleep patterns, sudden weight gain or loss, changes in eating habits, or increased substance abuse. Emotional warning signs can also be present, such as depression, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, experiencing frequent bouts of crying, having difficulty concentrating, withdrawing socially, becoming impatient or irritable, or experiencing increased feelings of resentment. If one or more of these symptoms are present in you or a loved one who is providing care, it may be time to slow down, reevaluate priorities, and develop self-care strategies.
Here are some tips to help manage caregiver stress:
Make time for yourself. It can be difficult to get some alone time when you are sheltered-in-place with the person for which you are caring – but it is critical. Like we are told in airplane emergencies, you must put on your own mask first so you can then help others. During the pandemic, that means not only your literal mask but also “filling up your gas tank,” so to speak. If you cannot escape from the house, at least go into the other room, take a walk, or soak in a bath. Read a book, watch a movie, or listen to a podcast. Try something that gets your mind off of a constant “to do” list or negative news headlines.
Exercise regularly. If you can, go for a walk or jog outside. If you can’t leave the house, use an exercise video or do some yoga. Moving your body stimulates “feel good,” stress-busting hormones called endorphins, and improves both mood and general wellbeing.
Eat a healthy diet. It’s true that “you are what you eat.” Nutrients in the foods you eat directly impact your mood, energy levels, and health. Be sure to start your day with a nutritious breakfast. Limit processed foods and consumption of soda and sweets. Drink a lot of water, and eat fruits and vegetables as often as possible. You should see a noticeable difference after a few weeks of sticking to a healthy diet.
Make room for social outlets. This has obviously become more difficult during the pandemic, but even during lockdown you can get creative about ways to socialize with others. FaceTime, Zoom chats, and socially distanced in-person meet-ups can be great ways to feel a sense of connection with friends and family members. This will help tremendously with combatting the feeling of isolation.
Prioritize sleep. Your body’s way of recharging your batteries is through sleep. Sleep schedules can be compromised when caring for others who may have different sleep patterns or nighttime needs. Stick to a sleep-wake schedule as best as possible, and be sure your bedroom is comfortable and conducive to good sleep hygiene.
Engage in hobbies. All work and no play is a recipe for disaster. Even those dedicated to their caregiving duties shouldn’t become consumed by them. Pick up old hobbies or try new ones. Perhaps you love to garden, or cook. Maybe your outlet is writing, reading, or singing. Hobbies are a way to relax and engage your mind with healthy habits.
Seek support. It can be emotionally exhausting to adjust your life to the medical limitations and challenges of those for whom you are caring. Talking to other caregivers or loved ones about the burden you feel can help you cope. If you are unable to leave your patient alone for extended periods of time, reach out to others to see if they can assist with caregiving needs while you take time for some much-needed self-care. If you are caring for a loved one at home, you can reach out to an organization like Cahoon Care to bring in some short-term or part-time help for some respite.
Caregivers must be realistic about the challenges they face. There’s no shame in understanding that you have limits and that you need to set boundaries. Listen to your body and look for warning signs that may indicate that the stress in your life is getting to be too much. Take the necessary steps to ensure you can remain healthy and effective for the long haul.