Anyone who has ever flown on an airplane knows that in case of an emergency, we are supposed to put on our own oxygen masks first, for the simple reason that we can’t help anyone else if we can’t breathe. The same is true for caregivers, who might be caring for ill or aging parents or spouses, as well as their own children: they need to take care of themselves before they can take care of their loved ones. And yet, caregivers often put themselves last on their caregiving list. Here are 10 relatively easy ways for caregivers to begin to take care of themselves and reduce stress—for the sake of their loved ones as well as for themselves.
1. Walk in Nature
Research shows that people who walk in nature have lower levels of cortisol, lower pulse rates, and lower blood pressure than control groups do. Walk in a state park, go for a hike, visit a garden, lake, or beach, or simply stroll through a green, leafy neighborhood to reduce your stress—and enjoy the view.
2. Massage Your Stress Away
The American Massage Therapy Association cites numerous studies which show that massages can be effective for stress relief. Word of mouth is a great way to discover excellent massage therapists in your area; ask your friends for referrals. Zeel and Soothe offer same-day in-home massages by licensed, vetted therapists 7 days a week (where available).
3. Yuk it Up—Preferably with Friends
Laughter strengthens the immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain by releasing endorphins, and protects us from the damaging effects of stress. So read the funnies, watch a comedy on Netflix, or—best of all—spend time laughing with friends. The latter will have the added benefit of strengthening your relationships, which has been linked to an increase in longevity, and is also…you know…fun!
4. Catch Happy Zzzs
Many women at midlife have trouble sleeping, and many caregivers stay up at night worrying about the loved ones they’re caring for; in fact, 60% of all female caregivers get fewer than the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. A weighted blanket (choose one that weighs about 10% of your body weight) just might help. The pressure helps increase serotonin (a neurotransmitter that makes us feel happy and calm), so that you can sleep better—and thus feel well rested to care for others come morning. A few to check out include Blanquil; PremiumHealth Calmforter; and YnM Weighted Blanket.
5. Turn the Page
You know when you’re lost in a good book and you feel like your heart slows, and the world disappears? According to researchers at the University of Sussex, that’s your stress melting away. Reading is the best and quickest way to relax, they’ve found; after only 6 minutes, stress levels go down by 68%. Find recommendations for good books in the print version of First For Women; through recommendations on Goodreads; or on “What to Read Next” lists from your local library.
6. Sweat it Out
Experts recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic exercise—such as walking or swimming, plus strength training twice a week—to stay healthy. Exercise also releases endorphins, which makes us happy and reduces stress. (And you thought it was the 80s music on your playlist…) Schedule exercise (whether it’s a barre classes, an hour at the gym, or tennis with a friend) into your phone calendar or appointment book, and make this sacred time just for you as important as a medical appointment—because it is.
7. Say Om
Meditation, if practiced only ten minutes a day, can help control stress. And yes, there’s an app for that, including two that are completely free: Insight Timer and The Breathing App. Calm and Headspace both start with free trials and then charge paid subscription fees (prices vary).
8. Go Away
Caregivers need breaks. Depending on your budget, you can hire someone to care for your loved one(s) while you take a much-needed and well-deserved vacation, or you can ask a friend or relative to care for your loved one(s) while you go stay with a friend. In any case, do take time to recharge, whether it’s for a week, a weekend, or overnight.
9. Write Your Thanks
Research has shown that keeping a gratitude journal helps keep us more resilient against stress. Tonya, 48, of Madison, Wisconsin, who cares for her mother with Alzheimer’s as well as her two teenagers, says that when she first started keeping a gratitude journal, there were times when it was hard to find three things to be grateful for at the end of the day. But then she started writing things like, “I’m grateful for my dog Winnie, who makes me go for a walk whether I want to or not. [My daughter] Valerie loaded the dishwasher without being asked. My co-worker Jan brought me minestrone soup for lunch. It was hearty and delicious. I’m lucky to have her for a friend.” Her mood started to change. “I just started to feel… happier!” she says. Tonya isn’t alone. According to researchers, writing down what you’re grateful for at the end of the day has been shown to fight stress, ward off physical illness, increase happiness, decrease depression, help problem solve, and improve relationships.
10. Appreciate Wonderful You
Don’t forget to thank yourself. Your kids probably won’t, and your ill and/or aging parents, sibling, or spouse may not be able to. What you’re doing is generous and amazing. Thank wonderful you!
Kelly Dwyer is a novelist, playwright, and freelance writer who lives with her family and pug outside of Madison, Wisconsin.