Self-Care Planning

Are you stressed???   Alarmingly, 65% of the time, family caregivers predecease their loved one! Anytime we are “on alert”, feel shocked, overwhelmed, or excluded, our fight/flight system is activated.  This response is designed to protect us in times of danger, and made to last only 20 minutes or so.  We are not designed to live in a continual state of fight or flight.   Many caregivers, however, do just this.

Most of the time, we are unaware that we are under this kind of stress.  We are too distracted by the work at hand and our related thoughts, to step back and understand what impact our caregiving lifestyle is having on us.  Have you ever heard yourself say, “We’re getting by,” “I don’t know how much more I can take,” or “If only I could catch a break!”  Perhaps these are indicators that you are under this kind of chronic stress.  Likewise, headaches, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, and muscle aches may tell you that you are in trouble due to stress.

Common indicators, otherwise known as distress signals, can be categorized as follows:

Physical Distress Signals Examples include general fatigue, twitching or trembling, heart pounding, headaches, chest pains, muscle pain, muscle soreness or tightness not related to exercise; upset stomach and loss or increase of appetite.

Emotional Distress Signals Examples include feeling overwhelmed, fed up or sad; disrupted sleep; fear that others are against you; emotional ups and downs; and a strong urge to cry.

Cognitive Distress Signals Examples include difficulty organizing thoughts, making decisions and concentrating; discouraging, bizarre or disjointed thoughts; and inward preoccupation.

Behavioral Distress Signals Examples include irritability, compulsive actions, teeth grinding, jaw clenching, restlessness, short temper and verbal attacks.

Identifying which categories of distress signals we most often experience is key to developing our personal plan for managing stress.  There is an optimal amount of stress as it relates to productivity, and the purpose of this article is to identify ways to manage our stress so that it does not exceed the most beneficial amount for us.  We have minimal control over the stress-triggering events and occurrences outside of us, such as actions and words of our loved ones.  The purpose of a good self-care plan is to keep us healthy so that we can have the most beneficial responses when these events occur.

Personally, the distress signals that alert me to the fact that I am experiencing excess stress are primarily physical, and sometimes emotional and behavioral in nature.  For myself, eating regularly to avoid low blood sugars, regular exercise, restful sleep, a reliable routine and a daily dose of prayer with time in the Word, all help me be at my optimal best.  When these things are in place an upsetting event may occur, and I am more able to make calm, rational decisions, respond gracefully, and problem solve effectively.  When I am not employing these self-care strategies, I am more likely to react impulsively and say or do things that may cause additional problems, leave the room crying, even stomp my foot with yelling!   I may then “beat myself up” with guilt which serves to further increase my stress.  Muscle aches and fatigue tend to be the end results.

Self-Care Planning includes the following:

Take an Inventory: What are your distress signals?  When do you experience them? What is happening just prior to the distress signal?  Can you remove any of these situations, or remove yourself from them?  Perhaps you experience headaches during a specific social activity?  What could be triggering the headaches?—The lighting?  The noise? The people?  Does the benefit of the activity outweigh the stress?  Are you attending only because you think you “should”? Any activity we do only because we tell ourselves we should do it probably needs to be evaluated.  No matter which kind of distress signals you experience, this is a good place to start the self-care planning process.

Analyze your Self-Talk: Sometimes we increase our stress by what we say in our heads.  Phrases like “This is impossible”, “I’ll never make it”, “I always screw this up,” “I should be better at this,” “This is hopeless,” and “Everybody else can do this—why can’t I?” only serve to increase our likelihood of frustration and perceived failure.  Many people find it useful to identify phrases they find themselves saying frequently, then evaluate these phrases.  Are they true?  If not, are there positive, encouraging messages to replace these negative statements with?  “I’ll never make it”, might be replaced with, for example “I’ll just do my best,” or “I will take this one step at a time.”  Pay attention to phrases with the words “never”, “always” and “should”.  These usually are punitive and only serve to increase our stress.  Cognitive distress signals may be triggered by negative self-talk.  Changing it to positive, encouraging messages of hope can reduce our stress and open us to up to solutions we may not have been able to see when clouded by cognitive distress signals.

Incorporate Healthy Eating into your Daily Routine: This is not about what you should or should not eat.  This is about increasing your ability to manage stress by having nutritious, delicious foods in your body, and taking the time to enjoy eating them.  Don’t incorporate foods that you don’t like; instead choose foods that bring you pleasure and good health.  When possible, choose from foods and beverages in all of the food groups that are low in excess sugars, caffeine and harmful fats.  Eat regularly and hydrate well.  People who experience physical distress signals are especially helped by eating healthfully.  Good eating also helps us think more clearly and have more energy for meaningful engagement.

Incorporate Exercise into your Daily Routine: No, this does not mean you need to un-bury your treadmill and trudge through a grueling 20 minutes three times a week.  This is about joyful movement.  What feels good to your body?  Laughing uses all of the muscles that make up your core.  Dancing frees the body and the mind.  Deep breathing is calming, reducing emotional stress, and gives more oxygen to our brains for clear thinking; the pause itself can help us reset, possibly stopping us from acting out behaviorally.  Maybe a refreshing walk outside hits the spot for these to yourself regularly.  The right exercise can help no matter how what distress signals you experience.

Communicate:  Communicate your needs and preferences to others—don’t expect people to read your mind.  Seek to understand the expectations and needs of others—ask questions; don’t assume.  Share your experiences with others; you don’t have to do this care giving journey all alone.  Many people find support groups or working with a counselor useful, especially people who experience cognitive and emotional distress signals.

Accept Help: “I don’t need help; he’s not that bad.”  Didn’t the little red hen who said “I’ll do it myself…” get hit on the head when the sky was falling??? Maybe I’m mixing up the fairy tales.  Never-the-less, over burdening oneself by not asking for or accepting help, only makes matters worse.  Orienting friends, family members or professionals, on how to help meet the needs you and your loved one have, takes energy upfront, but is well worth it.  We were not created to carry our burdens alone, but rather to share the load with others.  This strategy is effective for people experiencing any category of distress signal, especially cognitive and behavioral.

Create a Daily Routine: Routine is not just beneficial for individuals experiencing memory loss.  It helps all of us.  Include times for active and restful activities, rest reducing activities, and moments of joy.  We sometimes think “I don’t have time.” The truth is that when we are proactive by having a plan, rather than reactive, we are calmer, and then can think more clearly, thus creating more time to accomplish our goals.

Write it Down: Identify a distress signal you experience, and pick one correlating self-care strategy. Use it to make an action plan for this week.  Be specific.  What is the strategy? How many times will you do it this week?  When?  What steps, if any, are involved in executing the plan?  Congratulate yourself on any effort you make toward executing your plan.

Celebrate: Celebrate every step you make in this powerful path of self-care.  And breathe in the joy of the moment!  Your situation may be challenging, but it is worthwhile to find and celebrate the moments of joy, however small or short-lived.  Laugh. Be kind with yourself.

Blessings to you!