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Caring for the Caregiver: Promoting Your Own Well Being

by Joanne K. Singleton, PhD, RN, CS, FNP
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There is no doubt that caregiving, even in the best of circumstances is stressful. Stress, however, in and of itself is not bad, it is how we respond to it that can challenge our well being. What then is well being, and how can well being be supported?

There are many terms used to describe well being. Should you look the term up in the dictionary contentment, happiness, health, prosperity, and wellness are all listed as definitions of well being. This can be misleading though, as well being cannot be defined so simply. Well being is a state of balance or harmony. Each of the dictionary terms in reality are adjectives that describe well being. The definition of well being is actually very personal, and also changeable.

Events, situations, and circumstances that occur in one's life upset the balance and produces stress. Not everyone responds to life events with the same thoughts, feelings and reactions. When we perceive life events to be stressful, or we exceed our stress threshold, it is not uncommon to experience anxiety. If we think of being in balance as "being present with oneself," when anxiety tips that balance it can result in feeling "ahead of oneself" worrying about what is to come, or "behind oneself," worrying about what has occurred. Finding ways to manage responses to stress is critical to well being and maintaining one's personal balance. Developing your own foundation for well being can help you not only to find and promote your own balance, but it can help you to support well being in the face of ongoing or increasing challenges that may be presented to you in your demanding role as caregiver.

A Foundation for Well Being

There are many simple things that we can do for ourselves, on a day-to-day basis to form a foundation for well being. Although they may have been heard before, how many of the beneficial activities listed below, which cost little to nothing, and require little time, do you do for yourself? Take a look over this list, try some of the activities, see how they make you feel, make your own personal list, and work at supporting your well being on a daily basis.

Foundational Activities to Promote Well-Being
- Nurture your biological-psychological-social-spiritual self
- Know what nurtures you*
- Have goals and fulfill them
- Do kind acts

- Surround yourself with people who make you feel good
- Read, visit bookstores or the library, share books among friends
- Pay attention to your body, get to know your personal terrain
- Choose food wisely and chew slowly
- Seek out healthy verbal environments, language is felt by every cell
- Create your own healthy verbal environment through what you say and how you say it
- Pay attention to yourself, be present with yourself
- Drink water: use a green glass- green is healing, flavor the water with fruit
- If you do not like to drink water, add honey and lemon for cleansing, drink water at room temperature
- Make your home a place you look forward to going to
- Keep a window open for oxygenated air (consider an air filter if you live in a very polluted area)
- If you like candles, safely burn candles
- Bring nature into your home with plants or flowers
- Consider a pet
- Add to this list your own personal activities to support your well-being

At times the stress we experience can excellerate, or the way we respond to stress can change. This may result in an increased feeling of anxiety. Anxiety is considered non-pathologic, except when it is so persistent or severe that it impedes an individual's interpersonal or occupational functioning. There are many strategies that can be used in times of increased non-pathologic anxiety. The following section will discuss three effective strategies.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy, the use of essential oils and perfumes to facilitate healing, dates as far back as 5000 years ago. The term, however, was coined much more recently in the 1920's by Gattefosse, a French perfumer, who was interested in the antiseptic and dermatologic properties of essential oils. During WWII, Valet, a surgeon who had studied Gattefosse's work, used essential oils to treat injured soldiers. Valet found them to be effective and continued to use them in his practice. This field continues to develop and includes spiritual and emotional balancing.

A process of steam distillation of flowers or leafy plant material is used to produce essential oils. The actual extract is made from a minute percentage of the flower's or plant's oil. Essential oils therefore are highly concentrated, they are also volatile and aromatic. The complex mixture of chemicals that constitute each essential oil is what produces their therapeutic properties. The therapeutic properties of essential oils enter the body though the sense of smell, and by absorption through the skin.

The sense of smell has a strong memory. Each person has personal associations with aromas. Previous experiences with aromas, positive and negative, may influence how one responds to aromatherapy. Lavender, highly regarded among essential oils because of its versatility, has been found to be effective in relieving anxiety.

Lavender (lavandula angustifolia) originated in the mountain regions of countries that border the western Mediterranean. It is a shrubby plant with aromatic flowers that is extensively cultivated in France and England. The word comes from the Latin "lavare", which means to wash. The use of lavender dates back to the Romans who are reported to have used this herb in their baths. Lavender oil is made by distilling lavender flowers. It takes 150 kg of lavender flowers to make 1 kg. of oil.

Because lavender is very potent a little bit goes a long way. Lavender can be purchased at health food stores or from online aromatherapy suppliers. The cost varies but you should be able to find 100% essential oil of lavender, 0.5 oz, starting at $6.00. Essential oil of lavender can be prepared in several ways to be used for aromatherapy.

Lavender Aromatherapy

Lotion: Use an unscented light lotion and add 15-18 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of lotion. Apply a small amount of lotion to your hands throughout the day and breath in the aroma. Small inexpensive plastic travel containers can be used to carry your aromatherapy with you to use it as needed throughout the day.

Mist: Use plain water in a plastic spray bottle and add 15-18 drops of essential oil to 4 ounces of water. Spray the aromatherapy mist into your environment throughout the day and breath in the aroma.

Bath: Use 5-10 drops of essential oil for a full bath. When taken before bedtime this can help to promote calming and sleep.

* Before applying essential oils test to make sure you do not have any skin sensitivity to it by applying a very small amount to the inner side of your wrist. Essential oils should not come in contact with the eyes. Keep essential oils out of the reach of children. Because of the potency of essential oils they may not be appropriate for use in people with asthma, or women who are pregnant.

Breathing

Breathing is essential to life, but because in normal circumstances it occurs automatically, we may not focus our attention on breathing. Yet, by focusing our attention on breathing we can actually decrease anxiety. Breath is a life force that can help to center and ground us because it is deeply connected with our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls the "fight or flight" response in our bodies when we feel the threat of stress. Through breathing we can calm the nervous system.

Conscious breathing is the foundation of other techniques such as mindful meditation, visualization and guided imagery, which are all used to decrease anxiety and relieve stress. The first step toward conscious breathing is sitting quietly and comfortably, closing you eyes, and breathing slowly in and out through your nose to the count of five. Try doing this for a few minutes throughout the day and whenever you are feeling anxious. When you are feeling anxious think to yourself, "breath into it" (with "it" being whatever you are experiencing that is causing you to feel anxious), and use your breathing to help ease the anxiety. After you have worked with the count of five and feel comfortable with it, increase your count, and continue to increase it over time.

Exercise

Exercise comes in many forms. Finding what fits with one's lifestyle and caregiving responsibilities is critical to making it a part of routine activities. Before being any new exercise program you should consult with your health care provider. As a strategy for soothing anxiety, attention must be paid to the type and timing of the exercise activity. Squeezing into an already overbooked day a vigorous workout at the gym may leave one person after the workout feeling less anxious. Yet, another may be more anxious from having worried throughout about the results of having squeezed it in. Some individuals find taking a walk an hour or so before going to sleep helps promote a good nights sleep, while others find it too stimulating. When it comes to exercise for reducing anxiety, one size does not fit all. Learning what will work may take experimenting and recognizing that what worked before might not work today.

Caring for Yourself

Caregivers, to be and remain effective must make sure they take care of themselves. Promoting and supporting your well being is essential to your role as caregiver.

Internet Resources:
- The Anger Wall on ALZwell
- ElderCare Online’s Community Center (Caregiving Mentors and Discussion Groups)

- Healthy Aging Hot Topic

Related Articles:

- Understanding and Acknowledging Negative Emotions
- Overcoming Negative Emotions

- Identifying and Reducing Stress in Your Life
- Where Is the Joy in Alzheimer’s Caregiving?
- Stress Management: Tips and Techniques
- Using Family Meetings to Resolve Eldercare Issues
- Strategies for Managing Stress Skill Builder

Reading List:
- Caregiver’s Reprieve: A Guide to Emotional Survival by Avrene Brandt, Ph.D.
- Taking Time for Me: How Caregivers Can Effectively Deal With Stress by Katherine L. Karr
- Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss and Renewal by Beth Witrogen McLeod
- The Complete Eldercare Planner by Joy Loverde
- Hugs for Caregivers by Pauline Sheehan
- Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents by Claire Berman

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