Practicing Self-Care

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How and why caregivers should care for themselves.

In the chaos and intensity that surrounds a new cancer diagnosis, everyone tends to focus all of their care and concern on the patient. While caregivers often brush aside their own needs, experts warn that such selfless devotion can backfire. The constant stress of providing care can make caregivers more vulnerable to getting sick or burned out. Caregivers should look at their stress levels and try to prevent burnout before it happens. Following are some ways to prevent burnout.

Reach out. Caring for someone full time can lead to feelings of panic, despair and isolation. After the initial crisis of diagnosis and treatment, there’s often a lingering worry that the cancer could return. Caregivers should reach out to friends, family, online chat groups and support organizations to help reduce feelings of isolation.

Support groups for cancer patients and caregivers can be located through local hospitals or the American Cancer Society. It makes a big difference for caregivers to know they’re not alone in their experiences or feelings. They should try exercise, meditation and other stress reduction techniques, too. If nothing seems to help, it might be time to consult a therapist or doctor.

Accept help. If friends or neighbors ask what they can do to help, caregivers should tell them. By keeping a to-do list ready, caregivers can let others know exactly what is needed when asked. If friends or relatives are not available to step in for a few hours, caregivers might want to hire someone or find adult day care. The U.S. Administration on Aging offers a national database of eldercare providers at eldercare.gov.

Get some sleep. To overcome insomnia, experts suggest things like staying on a regular sleep schedule, keeping the bedroom quiet and using guided imagery and relaxation techniques. Cutting back on late-afternoon caffeine and adding mild to moderate exercise can also help caregivers sleep better. Alcohol can interfere with sleep as its effects wear off, so try warm milk or a soothing herbal noncaffeinated tea instead. Sometimes it helps to write down any worries and “release” them for the day before heading to bed. If all else fails, it could be time to talk with a doctor.

Stay healthy. With everything they have to do in a day, caregivers often neglect basic health maintenance. Some simple things to strive for include eating regular meals that are rich in fruits and vegetables, staying hydrated and exercising, even if it’s just a brisk 15-minute walk each day. Caregivers should line up help so they can keep regular appointments for their own dental cleanings, health screenings and annual checkups, too.

Find meaning. Caregivers who can take their experience with cancer and learn from it might have less depression and anxiety. Through caregiving, many people find more meaning in life and are able to focus on their highest priorities. Caregivers can work on personal growth by meditating, starting journals, talking with counselors or leaning on their spiritual communities.