As a carer, the routine kindness and support you give others may bring feelings of fulfilment and enhanced meaning to your life. However, if your selfless, caregiving work entails long hours or perhaps even a 24/7 schedule, you may feel increasingly drained, both physically and mentally, with pent-up emotions teetering on the brink of meltdown. Especially so if you juggle caregiving work with other commitments such as another job or looking after your own young family.
It’s clear that the stress and fatigue of caregiving could lead to more serious health problems such as depression and high blood pressure if you do not take enough time to look after yourself and respond to your own health needs. Therefore, redressing the balance with some self-care routines that nourish mind, body and soul can help keep you on an even keel.
Doesn’t self-love equate to selfishness?
You might wonder how you can find time for the TLC you deserve, especially if you attend to the needs of a sick or vulnerable loved one who may require habitual reassurance of your presence. And how can you justify taking time for yourself without feeling guilty? The simple answers are you may just have to accept that little inner voice accusing you of being selfish and indulgent. However, acceptance does not presume agreement! Rather, try pausing for a moment to think rationally and not just emotionally; you will realise that loving yourself is of paramount importance to your work as an effective, loving caregiver. Fundamentally, self-care is not selfish and indulgent, because in the long run, it will help you stay healthy, resilient and better enabled to give others the care they need.
The greatest love of all
History tells us that around the year 270 AD, a holy priest named Valentine ignored the Roman emperor’s orders banning marriages and continued to perform them in secret. Once his actions were disclosed, Valentine was executed and thus became a martyr for his cause. In modern times, Saint Valentine’s Day is celebrated not for acts of martyrdom, but in order to show appreciation for a loved one such as a partner or spouse, perhaps offering them a card or gift, or enjoying a meal out together in a nice restaurant. While demonstrating love for others can certainly make us feel good, we should also remember that self-love is the greatest love, and our greatest ally towards overall physical health and mental well-being.
Essential tool kit for self-care: eat-move-rest-connect
1. Eat. True love for yourself starts with giving your body the nutrients it craves and deserves. Forget fad diets and so-called ‘superfoods’ – there’s no cutting corners on this – you need optimum nutrition: fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, lean protein, low-fat dairy (or vegan substitutes) and healthy fats. A good place to start is with the Eatwell Plate: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/.
2. Move. Exercise benefits health, but if you don’t like ‘exercise’ per se, then don’t call it that! You really don’t have to don lycra, join a gym, follow Joe Wickes or subscribe to Davina McCall (unless you really want to!) And if you find the gym environment soulless and depressing (and honestly, you’re not alone) then just aim to move your body – a little bit, every day, and if possible, outside. Or just use any odd moments you may have in the day to dance along to some upbeat music. It might only be for a few minutes at a time, but it will make a world of difference to your mood and your levels of fitness and energy. According to the NHS: ‘Adults should do some type of physical activity every day. Any type of activity is good for you’. Along with specific aerobic hobbies such as cycling and swimming, everyday tasks such as housework and gardening are beneficial, too. Remember the mantra… ‘Any activity is better than none’:
3. Rest. Obviously, a good night’s sleep helps refresh a jaded mind and revive a weary body; but rest is about more than sleep. Regular breaks during your working schedule will also help you cope with the rigour of caregiving. A break of about 20 minutes can lift your spirits and enable you to fully re-focus your attention on providing first class, compassionate care. Your rest might consist of a power nap, reading a chapter of a book, browsing a magazine or simply chatting with a friend. However, to gain the most from your rest period or ‘time out’, it’s important to let your mind engage with activities and topics that are distinct from your caregiving role.
4. Connect. Supportive family and friends are people you can fully trust; they accept you as you are, listen to your fears and love you unconditionally, wrapping you with kindness when you feel down. A support system of like-minded carers who understand your specific dilemmas and concerns may also be able to help and advise you. However, choose your support groups wisely as they should include people who are concerned about your own overall well-being in addition to the specific care needs of your clients or loved one.