Managing the Stress of Caregiving Is a Matter of Mind over Body

Let’s be clear: caregiving is stressful. Your caregiving stress is not all in your head, nor is the stress your fault. It can’t be managed by just “going to your happy place.” All caregivers are better off if they have a cache of stress-management tools from which to draw.

A strong link exists between our thoughts, attitudes and emotions and our mental and physical health. As one caregiver so truly stated, “It’s not always mind over matter, but mind matters.” Although thoughts and emotions don’t always cause stress, thoughts and emotions do have a big influence on how we handle and respond to stressors.

Research shows that thoughts and emotions trigger certain hormones and other chemicals that send messages throughout the body. These messages affect how our body functions. For example, thoughts and emotions can affect our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, blood sugar levels, muscle responses, concentration, ability to get pregnant and ability to fight off illness.

All of us, at one time or another, have experienced the power of the mind and its effects on the body. Both pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and emotions can cause our bodies to react in different ways. Our heart rate and breathing can increase or slow down; we may experience sensations such as sweating, blushing, tears and so on. Sometimes just a memory or an image can trigger these responses.

Try this simple exercise: Imagine that you’re holding a big, bright yellow lemon slice. You hold it close to your nose and smell its strong citrus aroma. Now you bite into the lemon. It’s juicy! The juice fills your mouth and dribbles down your chin. Now you begin to suck on the lemon and its tart juice. What happens? Even though you’re not actually biting into a lemon slice, the body responds. Your mouth puckers and starts to water. You might even smell the scent of the lemon. All of these reactions are triggered by the mind and its memory of your experience with a real lemon.

The power that the mind has over the body gives us a good reason to develop our mental abilities as a way to manage our stress and other symptoms. With training and practice, we can learn to use the mind to relax the body, to reduce stress and anxiety, and to reduce the discomfort or unpleasantness caused by physical and emotional symptoms. These practices are sometimes referred to as “thinking” or “cognitive” techniques because they involve the use of our thinking abilities to make changes in the body.

Keep in mind these key principles:

1. Stress has many causes.

Because it can be caused by so many factors, stress management can take many different approaches. If you understand the nature and causes of your stress or other symptoms, you’ll be able to manage them better.

2. Not all management techniques work for everyone.

It’s up to you to experiment and find out what works best for you. Be flexible. This includes trying different techniques and checking your results to determine which management tool is most helpful under which circumstances.

3. Learning new skills and gaining control of the situation take time.

Give yourself several weeks to practice before you decide if a new tool is working for you.

4. Don’t give up too easily.

As with exercise and other new skills, using your mind to manage stress requires both practice and time before you notice the benefits. So even if you feel you’re not accomplishing anything, don’t give up. Be patient and keep on trying.

5. Stress reduction techniques should have no negative effects.

If you become frightened, angry or depressed when using any stress reducing tools, don’t continue to use them. Try other tools instead.

6. Stress is not all bad.

In fact, we need stress to help us prepare for challenging situations. Stress can make us tougher and more resilient. Learning new things and overcoming challenges often involves some positive stress.

Kate Lorig, DrPH, is professor emerita at Stanford University School of Medicine and a partner in the Self-Management Resource Center (SMRC). For 20 years, Kate watched her mother care for her father, who was severely disabled by a stroke. She co-authored Building Better Caregivers: A Family Caregiver’s Guide to Reducing Stress and Staying Healthy (Bull Publishing, June 27, 2018) with Diana Laurent, MPH, Robert Schreiber, MD Maureen Gecht-Silver, OTD. MPH, OTR/L Dolores Gallagher Thompson, PhD, ABPP Marian Minor, RPT, PhD Virginia González, MPH David Sobel, MD, MPH Danbi Lee, PhD, OTD, OTR/L. Learn more at selfmanagementresource.com

31 comments

Marie W
Marie W4 months ago

Thanks

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Peggy B
Peggy B4 months ago

I agree with Ann B. I used to help with my mother in law, who I adored, while my sister-in-law would take a week vacation and I don't know how she did it 24/7 for years. She was bedridden from a stroke, but had all her faculties. I also helped care for my mother who had dementia just to help out when I could and it is mentally and emotionally draining.

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Paula A
Past Member 9 months ago

thank you

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Ann B
Ann B10 months ago

being a caregiver for one you love is the HARDEST jobs you will ever have

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Chad A
Chad Anderson10 months ago

Thank you.

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Jan S
Past Member 10 months ago

TYFS

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Ruth S
Ruth S10 months ago

Thanks.

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Marija M
Marija Mohoric10 months ago

tks for posting.

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Winnie A
Winn A10 months ago

Thanks

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Chrissie R
Chrissie R10 months ago

Thanks for posting.

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