All too often, caregivers spend their time taking care of everyone but themselves. Taking care of others can be a wonderfully rewarding experience but at the same time, if you’re not careful, it can leave you feeling emotionally and physically bankrupt. Learning to balance taking care of both others and yourself takes time and patience (and in my case, chocolate!). If you’re like me, several days can go by before I do anything for myself. Usually if too much time goes by without a focus on my own needs every part of my body starts to rebel. My shoulders are hunched up around my ears; I have trouble sleeping, I feel anxious, and even my stomach feels off (too much chocolate?).
Here are some strategies I use to take care of myself:
- Breathe Deeply: On the worst days, when everything seems crazy and upside down I find the only thing I can manage is to breathe deeply. Deep breathing also called yoga breathing, is easy and you can do it anywhere. Simply breathe slowly in through your nose for a count of 5 (or whatever number works for you), hold for a few seconds and then exhale slowly out through your mouth for a count of 5. This is the method I have taught my kids to use to help them relax in stressful situations. When they were really young I would instruct them to slowly smell the flowers and then blow out the candles on the cake. Breathing deeply and slowly helps calm the body and mind and I find that it really works.
- Recite a Mantra: I used to think a ‘mantra’ was something only practicing Buddhists used to maintain a constant meditative state. Then I was introduced to the work of Sylvia Boorstein. A couple of years ago I was reading an article by Dani Shapiro and she referenced Sylvia Boorstein, who happens to be a Jewish Zen priestess. At first I thought it was a typo, it didn’t seem like those three words went together in a sentence. I googled her and discovered she writes, speaks and practices Zen Buddhism in Marin, California. She says that her culture is Judaism, but her religion is Zen Buddhism. Her writing is easy to understand and provides tidbits of everyday wisdom that feel more like a Jewish Bubbe patting you on the back, than a Zen priestess offering a pearl of wisdom. She says using a mantra can help keep you calm in times of difficulty. Her personal mantra is:“May I feel contented and safe,
May I feel protected and pleased.
May my physical body support me with strength,
May my life unfold smoothly with ease.”–Sylvia Boorstein, Happiness is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life. Reprint edition 2008. Ballantine Books.
I found this mantra to be too long so I tried just saying ‘may I feel protected and safe.’ Although I was very skeptical in the beginning, I couldn’t deny that somehow it felt good to repetitively say something positive over and over again. And I could say it to myself or under my breath (instead of the other grown up words I wanted to say!). I use it a lot when I’m waiting and also when I’m anxious. Some days I feel like all I do is wait. Waiting for an email response, waiting for a phone call, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, waiting for an IEP meeting to begin, waiting, waiting, waiting.
- Painting my nails: Truth be told, I usually only put clear polish on my nails. But, when I have the time to file and polish my nails I feel like a queen, and I’m less inclined to bite or pick at my nails while I’m doing all the waiting.
- Going for a walk: I enjoy either a slow amble with the dog, or sometimes a fast-paced exercise walk. I’m really trying so hard to reach for the dog’s leash instead of the chocolate, it’s a battle but I give myself credit for trying.
- Reading: Even if I can only read for 15 minutes, it calms me down and still feels like a treat.
What do you do to take care of yourself? Consider taking a minute to identify a few things that make you happy, things that you consider to be just for you. Even if all we have is 15 minutes to ourselves, it still makes a difference in our stress levels. Maybe the new caregiver mantra could be ‘I’m taking care of me so I can take care of others.’ After-all, it’s like they say on the airplane, ‘Secure your own oxygen mask first, before putting a mask on your child.’ Lastly, remember to let yourself off the hook, nobody’s perfect, and tomorrow is a new day with new opportunities.