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Fear, anger, guilt--caring for a loved one can take a toll on you, too. Gail Saltz, MD, helps you work through the emotions.
You know the saying, "If the plane is losing oxygen, put on your own mask first, then your child's." If you're caring for a loved one, this applies to you, too. But with over half of caregivers reporting that they're eating poorly and not exercising and three quarters not going to their doctors regularly, it seems that most of them have abandoned their own oxygen masks. And understandably so: Though taking care of a love one can certainly be fulfilling, there's no denying that it's emotionally taxing.
So what can ease the strain?
Recognizing and acknowledging your feelings about the issue--I've listed the three most common emotions below-- is the first step. Then, understanding what's behind your emotions can help lessen the stress they cause.
1 - You resent the responsibility
No matter how much you love the person and truly want to take care of him or her, it's inevitable that you'll feel frustrated--even angry--about how much of your life you're giving up and how hard the task is. Having outlets for "me time," such as friends to talk with, will help keep resentment manageable. Set aside 30 minutes each day to do something for yourself--whether it's exercising (which also helps you feel less stressed, since it prompts your body to produce feel-good endorphins), watching a funny TV show or listening to music. Also, pick a favorite habit or part of your routine from your "before" life to keep in your life now. It can be as small as taking the time to read the paper while you eat breakfast.
2 - You're grappling with your own mortality
Taking care of someone who's sick inevitably brings up questions like
What happens if my mother/father/sister/aunt doesn't get better? Will the same thing happen to me one day, and who will take care of me? As normal as these thoughts are, they're upsetting. To help you work through them, keep a journal/notebook to write down your thoughts and fears daily or every few days. This can help you realize that you're nowhere near being in your loved one's shoes. Doing things you're enthusiastic and passionate about and being present in the moment, such as taking extra time to enjoy your morning coffee--how it smells and tastes--also helps draw a contrast between the two situations and reinforces the fact that you're in a very different stage of life.
3 - You feel guilty
As a caregiver, you're making so many important, life-changing decisions that it's all too easy to second-guess yourself. Did we choose the right nursing home? Did I spend enough time with her today? Accept that feeling like this is normal and in no way means you're a bad person, and you'll help keep guilt at bay. Guilt is what tends to make people depressed and anxious; they may even unconsciously do things that are self-destructive to "punish" themselves.
Another key to combating guilt is to pinpoint what you feel guilty about. This can help you understand that some things are just out of your control like the fact that your loved one is sick. Sit down with pen and paper and ask yourself, What makes me feel guilty? and write down everything that comes to mind. For each point, ask Can I do something about this? Am I being reasonable? For example, you may feel guilty about taking time for yourself--but that's one of the most important things that enables you to be a good caregiver.
Caring for a sick loved one is a tremendous responsibility. All you can ask of yourself is that you do your very best--without sacrificing your own health and well-being.
Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and a TODAY show contributor.
This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Woman'sDay
* Signs that you need a break:
New health problems are often the first warning that caregiving is taking a serious toll. Red flags that you should see a doctor: an increase in blood pressure, headaches, back pain, constant fatigue, substantial weight loss or weight gain, sleeplessness and repetitive colds or viruses.
Signs of depression that call for a visit to a mental health professional:
A change in sleep and appetite, feeling hopeless and helpless, pervasive feelings of guilt, not being able to enjoy any activities, often feeling nervous, nausea, shortness of breath and thoughts of suicide.