Caring for a person who has cancer or another serious illness can be extremely stressful. Wilmot Cancer Institute Social Worker Sandra Sabatka shares tips to help caregivers reduce their stress and take care of themselves while they tend to the needs of a loved one.
If you’re a caregiver, it helps to know some of the signs of stress you may experience. They include:
- Impatience and irritability,
- Loss of appetite or overeating,
- Difficulty sleeping,
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering,
- Changes in mood,
- Withdrawal from others,
- Decreased interest in usual activities or an inability to accomplish usual tasks.
It’s important to maintain your own health while caring for a loved one, which often means reducing the level of stress you encounter by meeting some important needs.
- A well-balanced diet. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, every day. Make sure you’re getting enough to eat, and that what you’re eating is healthy so your body has the nutrients it needs. That means plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. On the flip-side, avoid things like caffeine, sugar, concentrated sweets, and alcohol that can make stress worse in the long run. You may also want to consider taking a multi-vitamin.
- Exercise. Physical activity is one of the best and easiest methods to reduce stress. If you’re already exercising, continue what you enjoy. If you’re new to exercise, don’t feel like you have to overexert yourself. Try a short walk outside or during the cold winter months, check local shopping malls for a warm, dry place to walk. If walking isn’t your thing, find something you like to do, such as dancing, Zumba, yoga or a sport. Try to get physical activity of some kind every day to keep stress at bay.
- Activities they enjoy. Even while caring for a loved one, you still need time to do something for yourself several times a week. Perhaps this means visiting friends or participating in hobbies like gardening or reading. Try to simplify your life, cutting out as many things as possible that you don’t find enjoyable, and make sure to tend to spiritual needs. Look for humor in your daily activities; laughter can help a lot when it comes to reducing stress.
- Time to relax. Relaxation can be practiced in a number of ways. Some examples include listening to relaxation CDs or music that helps you reduce stress, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, taking a warm bath, or practicing meditation or prayer. There are also a number of meditation/mindfulness apps, including Headspace, The Mindfulness App, Calm, and Buddhify. If nothing else, at least take some time each day for a break in a comfortable place where you can sit, close your eyes, and breathe deeply and slowly.
- Permission to cry. In fact, crying is therapeutic! Illness can bring about many losses for caregivers as well as patients, and some days are going to be more challenging than others. Crying on a tough day can sometimes be just what you need.
- Hope. Hope is defined as “a feeling of expectation and desire for certain things to happen.” It’s a powerful force and you have a right to remain hopeful as a caregiver.
- Support from others. Beyond physical help with activities like cleaning or groceries, caregivers may also greatly benefit from talking to others. You could see a therapist who specializes in working with caregivers or consider seeking out those who are in a similar situation. Wilmot offers a Caregivers Support Group that meets monthly and is open to anyone caring for an individual with cancer. Also, a number of online groups are available.
Sandra Sabatka, LMSW, senior social worker at the Wilmot Cancer Institute, has more than 15 years of experience in oncology social work helping patients, their family members, and their friends manage the emotional, financial, social, and other non-medical concerns that may accompany cancer diagnosis and treatment.