by Ed Moran, LCSW
Not long ago, someone dear to me welcomed a good friend into her home when she was sick. Her friend had been battling cancer on and off for a few years, and, at the time she moved in, it had become sadly apparent that her time was short. My friend Mary and her son worked tirelessly to assist and comfort the sick friend, transporting her to and from doctor’s appointment and the hairdresser to get her wig styled, cooking her meals, changing her sheets, and even just sitting with her to provide company and good conversation.
After a while, though, anxiety started to take a toll on Mary. Being available around the clock, feeding, bathing and chauffeuring, in addition to the sadness she was feeling about losing her friend, were affecting her sleep. Her blood pressure was increasing, and she started to have some trouble concentrating and staying on task. Anxiety was beginning to interfere with her ability to function.
We hear a lot about anxiety, but what exactly is it?
The general consensus about anxiety seems to be “take it away, I don’t want it.” But appropriate levels of anxiety allow us to meet deadlines, get the bills paid, and remember to pick the kids up at school. Typical anxiety symptoms, like the ones Mary was experiencing, can even tell us when it’s time to take a break or get some help.
When we’re caring for someone we love, someone with a chronic disease, it can feel like we’re on automatic pilot. Our bodies and our minds still need some time to recharge so that we can continue providing the necessary love and care. When we haven’t had that vital rest, we may experience any number of symptoms, such as the following:
- Problems concentrating — our ability to focus and concentrate is hampered.
- Depression — acute emotional distress, often in the form of sadness, tearfulness and a subsequent lack of motivation, tends to set in.
- Changes in appetite — whether overeating or skipping meals, our normal routines are disrupted and contribute to a general malaise.
- Panic attacks — increased heart rate, sweating an overall sense of fear and dread become unavoidable.
- Difficulty sleeping — ironically, a lack of sleep can create a pattern of restlessness that is difficult to overcome.
Even if we aren’t experiencing these particular symptoms, the importance of self-care can’t be stressed enough. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you can’t adequately help the people who are depending on you. But taking time out of your day to decompress, even for just a few minutes, is critical to your emotional and physical well-being. You might try:
- Taking a walk. Getting fresh air and exercise at the same time.
- Deep breathing exercises. They help to reduce your heart rate and take the focus off your anxiety, even for a few minutes.
- Get some rest. The more tired you are, the harder it is to focus and stay on point.
- Utilize your supports. Ask for assistance. This could mean help taking care of your kids, doing grocery shopping, or just giving you some time to step away for a bit.
- Caregiver support groups. Support groups are wonderful for venting, as well as for sharing tips and anecdotes.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol. It’s common to want to relax with a beer or a glass of wine. But treating anxiety with alcohol or other drugs masks your worries and may contribute to more worries down the road.
- Socialize. It can be hard to get away sometimes but even meeting a friend for coffee can provide a relief.
Caregiving around the clock definitely takes its toll on our sense of emotional well-being. As we try to balance our lives and meeting the physical and emotional needs of the sick, the anxiety we encounter makes it difficult to function in a healthy way. Learning to recognize when you need help, and being willing to ask for it, will go a long way in helping you provide the exceptional level of care your loved one deserves, and the exceptional self-care you deserve as well.
Ed Moran, LCSW is a clinical social worker at Family Centers Serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, CT and Westchester County, NY. Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.