By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
It’s that special time of year when we think about what we’re grateful for, and when we show appreciation for those who care about us and others.
One of the privileges I have through my work at NAMI is speaking with families who provide support to someone living with mental illness. Each time I have these conversations, whether on the NAMI HelpLine or at a NAMI conference, I am struck by the love and care they show and the hours they spend offering help and support.
Just recently, I was moved by the stories of two NAMI members. One: A father who drove through the night in panic to get to his son who had hung up the phone abruptly. He didn’t know what to expect when he arrived; would his son be harmed, in jail? Another: A daughter’s struggles and frustration with the medical system as she fought to make sure her mom had the care she desperately needed and deserved.
Their stories are representative of the many voices of caregivers—the mothers, fathers, children, sisters and brothers. I am in awe of all they do and am so grateful for their dedication and passion for helping those they love.
I heard someone say that caregiving is “love in action,” a description that rings true to me. The selfless love that caregivers express every hour of every day is so important to the well-being of others, but it’s also important that caregivers remember to take care of themselves. Unsurprisingly, 45% of caregivers have reported that their physical health has suffered while caring for their loved one.
I know that doing things that keep us physically and mentally healthy can be difficult and sometimes almost impossible to fit into our day. Often, we simply feel there just isn’t enough time in the day to be able to care for ourselves as well. In fact, 85% of caregivers say that they do not get a break. But we need to remember to put on our “oxygen masks” before helping others.
So maybe start small. Try finding that quick break or a few minutes here or there; experts say being out of “caregiver mode,” even if it’s just for a short time, can help you recharge. Here are some other things to consider when taking care of yourself:
Nearly half of unpaid caregivers have had feelings of depression, so be aware of how you are feeling. Do as much as you can financially and physically to improve the situation, but don’t feel guilty about all you won’t be able to do.
Understanding your body’s reaction to stress is a good place to start. For some, it manifests in sleep disturbances, in others, headaches or low energy. It’s important that we learn to recognize the signs of stress in ourselves so we can cope with it and plan for when it might occur. Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques can be very helpful.
I’m sure you’ve heard that it’s important for your loved one experiencing mental illness to sleep and eat right, but it’s just as important for you. Getting between seven and nine hours of sleep is something we all need, but often give little value to in our busy lives. A healthy diet also plays into our daily energy levels. Protein, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables work to help stabilize our mood and ability to cope.
We also know that one of the best ways to reduce stress is daily exercise, as it produces hormones that improve overall health. Exercise doesn’t have to be a formal gym workout, it can be something simple like taking an extra few minutes to use the stairs, walk around the block, or park your car a little bit further from a store’s entrance to get in some extra steps.
You don’t want to burn yourself out so try when you can to take a moment to slow yourself down, taking some deep breaths and thinking about places or things that make you happy. Remembering activities you enjoyed before you became a caregiver can be renewing and try your best to continue pursuing your own interests. Burying one’s hopes and desires in order to meet your caregiver needs can often add to the problem, not diminish it.
Friendships can also ease the feeling of isolation that can come with being a caregiver. Committing to gatherings with friends, when possible, can elevate your mood, reduce stress and give you something to look forward to. Take time to enjoy little things: a silly video or a joke with a friend. Laughter is good medicine.
Local NAMI organizations can also help put you in touch with support groups where caregivers can connect, share experiences and provide needed support to each other. Many family members have gained meaning from their journeys by advocating, teaching or leading a NAMI support group. Many find that helping others energizes them.
The holidays are here, and while it is a fun and festive time of year, an additional layer of stress can get added to everyday life. For those who give the daily gift of loving and caring for others, your gift to yourself and to that person for whom you care for can be to try to give some of that love and care to yourself.
NAMI is so thankful to all who provide ongoing love and support through a person’s journey with mental illness. Thank you for all you do.
Mary Giliberti is CEO of NAMI.
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