Elder Journal: Stress Reduction Techniques for Caregiver April 2003

By Paul Takayanagi
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I have given dozens of workshops and talks on stress reduction for caregivers in the past ten years.  I am often asked what is the best way to reduce the stress of caregiving for persons with dementia and related disorders.  Those of us who have cared for persons with dementia understand that it is one of the most stressful experiences any one can experience.  While each caregiver experiences stress differently, most caregivers understand that stress is a major part of their daily lives.  This stress can be exacerbated when national and international events, such as the world is experiencing currently, develop and are broadcast on the media.  One of the best ways you can take care of yourself is by learning ways to reduce stress in your daily life.

There are two kinds of stress that I want to look at this month.  The first is what I call “irregular stress” which is stress that is not usual and is based on some kind of emergency situation that happens rarely.  The second is “chronic stress” which is the kind of stress many caregivers of persons with dementia face on a regular and daily basis.  “Irregular” stress is necessary for survival and can actually be beneficial.  Chronic stress is not normal and can be debilitating to a caregiver’s health and well being over time.

I’m going to share with you two techniques this month that you can use with both kinds of stress effectively:

Technique One:  The Breath

The easiest and best way to reduce irregular and chronic stress and induce a deep state of relaxation for yourself is through the breath.  When under stress, the natural tendency is for a caregiver to either breathe very shallowly or holding the breath for short periods of time.  If you’ve ever watched a scary movie or taken a ride on a roller coaster, then you know this feeling.  You literally hold your breath during the experience.  After the scene or ride is over, you take a deep breath and sigh with relief.  “I’m glad that’s over” is the common statement after a scary experience.  Chronic stress can mirror these short bursts of stress only on a regular, even daily basis.  If you are holding your breath on a regular basis this can have negative health effects due to reduced oxygen to your body and mind.

The best advice any one can ever give you to reduce stress is “Take a deep breath.”  I have found that even saying this out loud to someone who is feeling stress can help them to breathe more normally.  When I do stress reduction workshops and say to the group before me to “take a deep breath,” everyone visibly breathes more deeply.  Even reading the words will help you.  You may have already taken a couple of deeper breaths just by reading this column.  When you take in oxygen into your body, the added oxygen automatically helps you to relax your muscles.   When you focus on the breath, it breaks the cycle of stress that has been accumulating in your body by taking your attention off the experience of the person you are caring for and onto experiencing your own body.

Try this technique:  Take a deep breath by counting to ten steadily, not too slowly or too fast, but a steady, one, two, three.  As you count, fill your lungs with air from the “bottom up.”  In other words, as you breathe, expand your lungs so that you feel your stomach rise first, then your sternum area and finally your chest.  Keep expanding your lungs with air to the count of ten.  Then, hold your breath calmly.  It’s common to abruptly stop breathing and hold your breath as if you were under water.  Instead, at the count of ten, just stop taking in breath and relax without exhaling for a count of two.   Then, easily and naturally, let the breath out SLOWLY from the “top down.”  In other words, release air from the chest first, then the sternum and finally the stomach for a count of five or so.  Then, repeat this exercise five times.  At the end, you will have oxygenated your body quite well.  It’s important to note again that this does not have to be forced.  You should learn how to do this oxygenating exercise in a normal setting without others even noticing that you are doing it.  It’s common while learning this technique to go “over board” by sitting up, taking enormous amounts of air, holding your breath abruptly and then exhaling with a big sigh.  While you are learning it, that is fine, but ultimately, it’s good to become so adept at oxygenating your body in this way that it is as normal as crossing your legs or adjusting the glasses on your nose.  When you oxygenate your body, you automatically relax your body and reduce the stress that has accumulated over time.  You are also improving mental function and emotional well being.

Technique Two:  Stretching Your Body

If you have ever sat for a long time on an airplane or through a long movie and then felt the fantastic release that comes from being able to stand up and stretch, then you know the benefits that stretching you body can have for you.  You can maximize this benefit exponentially by focusing on stretching your body regularly.  Stand up and first, before you do anything, take a deep breath in much the same way as you learned above.  Take in oxygen to the count of ten, hold it for two counts and exhale for five counts.   Then, breathe normally and focus on your body.  Stretch your arms out from your body and then up above your head as high as they can go allowing your back muscles to stretch out as well.  When your arms are above your head, stretch them just an inch or two more to get the absolute maximum stretch.  Bring your arms back to the side of your body until your hands are touching the sides of your thighs.   Now, bend over slightly, not very much, just until you feel stretch in your legs.  Let your hands go down the sides of your thighs and behind almost to the back of your knees.   Now, bend your knees slowly and in a comfortable way while you are bending slightly over.  Repeat bending your knees a number of times.  Then, straighten your legs and back to a normal standing position.  You have just stretched a majority of your body’s muscles with these two simple stretches!

It’s important to do both of these exercises on a regular basis whenever you feel stressful or when you have been sitting for a long period of time.  If you are on the computer a lot, then it’s important to do a body stretch every twenty minutes or more!  Breathing and stretching are the fastest and easiest ways to reduce stress.  You can also learn how to stretch your body without standing up if you are in a long meeting or in the middle seat of an airplane by stretching one arm at a time and then straightening your leg as much as possible and flexing your foot back and forth.   It’s possible to get a good stretch just by flexing your feet under your desk or a table.  You can also circle your ankles in each direction to stretch your feet and part of your leg even more.

Caregivers of persons with dementia are notorious for not taking time to take care of themselves in even the most simple ways.   It’s also common for people to believe that the only way they could possibly relax is to take a ten day vacation to Hawaii.   While that may reduce stress, unless you learn how to relax in these simple ways, you will just take all the stress with you to Hawaii!   You don’t need to go on a long vacation to relax your body and mind.  You can go on a five minute vacation by following the techniques in this month’s column.  Bon voyage!

Please refer to the January 2003 Elder Journal Column for additional information and resources on Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  You can also visit the web site for the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine at: www.whccamp.hhs.gov

About the Columnist:  Paul Takayanagi is on the faculty of the Gerontology Department at San Francisco State University.  He has also taught at the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; Chabot Community College; and the Graduate Theological Union.  He is also the Education Director of Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay in Berkeley, California.  He is a member of the American Society on Aging and currently is a Chairperson for their Summer Series on Aging.  He has presented nationally on “Holistic Gerontology” and other topics.  He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

April 22 (Tuesday 9:00 to 11:00PM EST) “Elder Journal:” Host Paul Takayanagi will host an informative discussion on the topic of “Stress Reducation Techniques for Caregivers.” You are encouraged to read his monthly column before joining the session (not required).


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