Caregivers are particularly susceptible to stress and its negative health effects. Learn about 5 ways you can beat stress this season.
We all get a little stressed out around the holidays—or a lot. But caregivers feel the pain more than most. According to the most recent Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association, caregivers of the elderly and chronically ill are more likely to report feeling stressed, as well as reporting it at higher levels. They’re also more likely to report poor health: among other negative effects, the stress of caregiving can compromise the immune system, aggravate existing chronic health conditions, and tax our mental and physical well-being. Fortunately, whether it’s finding time for yourself with respite care or simply asking for help, there are a number of creative ways to lower your stress—and the ultimate result will be more effective caregiving, as well as better quality of life and health for you yourself.
Know the Facts About Stress
What is stress? We throw the word around a lot, and we certainly know what it feels like when we’re stressed, but we also know that stress is extremely subjective. What’s more, stress isn’t always negative. In psychological terms, eustress, or “good stress,” can mobilize our individual resources and motivate us to accomplish more. Distress, or “bad stress,” is what most of us think of when we use the term “stress”—when the motivating situation or stressor is overstimulating and becomes too much for our minds and bodies to handle. Of course, that threshold is going to be different for everybody, and we all react differently when put under stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress, the key to preventing stress is awareness: “you need to be sensitive to the early warning symptoms and signs that suggest a stress overload is starting to push you over the hump.” With 22 percent of Americans reporting extreme stress in the APA survey, learning to recognize the signs we’re under pressure and avoiding our own particular stress triggers is something we should all be doing.
The Effects of Stress on Our Bodies and Minds
One of the biggest reasons to prevent and/or minimize stress levels is the fact that prolonged stress can have negative health effects on our bodies and minds. There are the negative symptoms of stress itself—including tension, irritability, anxiety, loss of appetite, headaches, and sleep problems.
But the increase in sympathetic nervous system activity also results in a release of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress-related hormones, says the American Institute of Stress, and this can lead to a variety of other health issues. The immune system gets impaired when we’re under stress, leaving us susceptible to colds and other viruses, as well as exacerbating cardiovascular and autoimmune issues. Caregivers under stress may find themselves anxious, depressed, and at higher risk for physical ailments, from heart disease to skin conditions. According to Herbert Benson, M.D. of Harvard Medical School, “experts now believe that 60 to 90 percent of all doctor visits involve stress-related complaints.”
Creative Ways to Lower Your Stress
You’ll find no shortage of recommendations for lowering stress, but we’ve zeroed in on five tips that are particularly pertinent for caregivers.
Ever heard the saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? It’s absolutely true, especially for caregivers—according to Stress in America, caregivers are worse than the general population at caring for their own health, and a large percentage do not go to the doctor because they put the needs of their care recipients and families above their own, reports the CDC. Prevent stress by getting enough sleep, maintaining a proper diet, and taking time out for yourself.
Meditation, even a short session, can decrease anxiety and agitation, and increase our ability to step back from a stressful situation and keep it from dragging us down. It can help us be more creative about problem-solving, and, according to a recent Fast Company article, “Meditation has also been linked to increasing compassion, decreasing stress, improving memory skills, and even increasing the amount of gray matter in the brain.”
3. Respite Care
Says the Mayo Clinic, “taking a break is one of the best things you can do for yourself as well as the person you’re caring for.” If you’re under stress, consider asking a nearby community whether they have respite care available, such as adult day care or short-term nursing stays. A home health care aide may also be a good option. A Place For Mom’s listings are a great place to start searching for respite care.
Physical activity is good for the body and the mind. And, if you’re not the type of person who can sit still to meditate for even a few minutes, exercise can have some of the same beneficial protective effects on our brain’s stress response. Plus, exercise releases natural endorphins in the brain, which can reduce pain and improve mood.
5. Seek Support
This one may seem self-evident, but it’s particularly necessary during the busy holiday season for caregivers to evaluate how you’re feeling, and determine if you need to reach out to family and friends to keep you happy and sane. Social support can be just as important as setting aside “me time,” whether it’s the sympathetic ear of a good friend, the professional help of a counselor, or just time out of the house having fun.
What’s your favorite stress-busting tip for the holiday season? Share your advice in the comments below.