The role of being a healthy caregiver involves knowing when to put the oxygen mask on.
I personally can’t count how many times I have listened to flight attendants review procedures for an in-flight emergency, but it always stood out to me that the oxygen mask goes on you before you place it on a friend or family member. I never had a problem with these instructions until flying with my infant son for the first time. My immediate thought was to protect my son before my own life, but slowing down to think things out, I realized that being a caregiver is being able to provide long-term and that self-care would allow for me to care for my son should something be needed beyond an oxygen mask. I would be of no use if my son had oxygen, but meanwhile I pass out. What I hear from most caregivers is helping others comes easy, but taking time for oneself in a crisis can feel selfish. I often ask my clients to relate to the directions of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first and many often initially respond the way I did the first time I heard the instructions as a young mother. When we take that step back to look at a situation objectively, we need to honor self-care to properly render care to others, and we need to think beyond the instinct of being a provider and protector to look at the larger picture.
Stress is an experience which takes us out of our typical routine and can be both positive (eustress) or what we define as negative and is termed (distress). As long as we live, we will experience stress, but it is what we do to manage stress which can allow us to be more resilient and potentially better caregivers and partners in life. When a family member, spouse or close friend has cancer, we may initially respond by altering our schedule to adjust to what the other person needs and think of ways we can offer support. A change in our routine or schedule typically does not cause immediate stress, but normally, two weeks is a baseline as to when it can be good to examine how a change in a life event is personally impacting self-care. Has your own routine taken a back seat to new tasks and life roles of being a caregiver, and if so what is being impacted — emotional, spiritual or physical wellness? During this time, you may find activities you participated in to destress have not been part of your life or your typical schedule and your way of doing things has been altered, leaving less time or an overall change in your routine. It is by no way selfish to acknowledge that you may have more demands than usual and that you yourself may need extra support emotionally or physically to manage stress, fears, and a change in lifestyle for anything lasting more than two weeks to a month.
Tips for coping may include finding a support group you can physically attend or a group you might be able to join online for a little emotional with fellow caregivers who are likely experiencing similar concerns. You may find it is important to find time to attend to physical wellness, but in ways or at times you are not use to, but it is important not to give up all activities — especially ones which can help sustain your own health and wellbeing. Exercising is a natural way to fight feelings of sadness and anxiety which can be common if you are uncertain of the future and how long a loved one might be fighting cancer. It may also be important to find ways to laugh. A good lighthearted comedy show or funny movie might just help to look at life in another perspective and to see some gratitude in the situation. Other tips might include finding ways to save time and temporarily hiring someone to help clean, pick up kids or any other errand which may lighten your schedule and give you a few free moments in which you can invest in what I call “me time.”
Many hospitals and outpatient centers are now realizing the importance of offering programs for caregivers, and you may want to inquire as to supports you can participate in during a time of healing both for yourself and your loved one. For example, in Yoga 4 Cancer, classes are for the person with cancer and family can also attend. Whatever you do to manage self-care, just ensure you are constructive in what you are doing. If you notice yourself drinking more than usual, isolating when you could benefit from being social or having a hard time enjoying any activity which was normally rewarding and being more sad than normal, you may want to consult a social worker or mental health counselor. A screening can ensure you are not becoming clinically depressed beyond what is a normal period of adjustment to a stressful and concerning situation. Generally, practicing good self-care and finding ways to put the oxygen mask on yourself will guide you in being a more balanced and healthy caregiver in the long run. My last tip is to practice the feedback you would give to someone else in your same position to check your own judgement. Are you being realistic in how you are managing goals for self-care? Are you being as kind to your own situation and acting in the same manner you would encourage another in your situation?