When you are a caregiver, you are probably dealing with two primary challenges: you are stressed out and you have very little time for yourself. This can be a vicious cycle!. You can’t combat stress when you don’t have time for stress relief.
Many people have found practicing relaxation techniques to be a simple and effective way of dealing with stress. When we refer to relaxation we are not talking about zoning in front of the TV but instead practicing skills that activate our body’s relaxation response. This makes stress easier to deal with.
Practicing relaxation (sometimes referred to as meditation) is effective because when engaged in relaxation you are narrowing your focus, limiting the stimulus that is stressing you out and calming your mind.
We’d like to share some simple exercises to get you started. Many of these do not require a lot of time and can be done anywhere. This makes them ideal for busy caregivers.
Believe it or not, most people don’t breathe properly. We increase tension and anxiety because we are ‘shallow breathing’ from our chests as opposed to deep breathing from our abdomen, according to the Harvard Medical School. “Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.”
Start by getting in a comfortable position and focus on breathing from your abdomen instead of your chest (“belly breathing”). Feel your stomach rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. Breathe in through your nose, hold for a few seconds and then exhale slowly through your mouth. The time it takes to exhale should be about twice what it is to inhale. Dr. Andrew Weil, a noted doctor and teacher on holistic health, suggests “yoga breathing” which is a 4:7:8 pattern – 4 to inhale, 7 to hold, and 8 to exhale. Click here to learn more and see a video demonstration of this technique from Dr. Weil.
After you have learned to incorporate deep breathing, add in a focus word or phrase. First close your eyes and breathe normally through your nose. Chose a word, or a short phrase with a positive connotation and as you exhale, silently say to yourself the word or phrase. It can be a sound like “om” or a word like “peaceful” or a short phrase such as “I am content”. Continue this for as many minutes as you can. If your mind wanders, gently remind yourself to think about your breathing and your chosen word or phrase and focus on the repetition. Your breathing should become slow and steady.
Guided Imagery or Visualization
The idea behind this technique is to use your imagination to recreate and enjoy a situation that is very relaxing. To begin, imagine yourself in a place, a scene or an event where you feel safe, peaceful, restful and happy. Bring as many senses as you can into this image and visualize yourself experiencing all of them. For example if your place is a beach, imagine yourself walking on the sand, feeling the sand run through your fingers, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin, listening to the sound of the ocean and so forth. The more you focus on the details, the more relaxing your journey will be.
If you are not feeling very imaginative, there a number of guided imagery apps you can use to help guide you in this process and stay focused.
Also known as “body scan relaxation” the purpose of this exercise is to check in and give focus to different body parts one at a time and reduce tension. This exercise is done best by lying down. Start out by taking a few deep breaths, exhaling slowly. Mentally scan your body starting at the top of your head and working your way down to your feet. Take notice of areas that feel tense or cramped and create a mental checklist of those areas. After creating your checklist, start again at the top of your head and mentally “flip the switch” on each area on your checklist to loosen it up. For example, if your temples were on your checklist visualize a switch being flipped and feel the tension release from that area. At the end of this exercise your entire body should feel relaxed.
Another technique that is similar to this is Progressive Muscle Relaxation where you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. A common method of progressive muscle relaxation is to start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. Tense your muscles for at least five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds, and repeat.
As you learn relaxation techniques, the physical sensations of stress such as muscle tension will become more apparent to you. Once you feel stress coming on you can make a conscious effort to practice one of these techniques the moment you feel the symptoms.
It’s important to remember that relaxation, like any new skill, takes practice and will improve the more you use them. Try many different techniques to find what works best for you.
For more helpful information on how to minimize the stress of caregiving read our recent article “Caring for the New Caregiver”.