Caregiver Burnout: A Side Effect of Chronic Pain that Can’t Be Ignored

Building resilience: The importance of a self-care practice

But the world of the caregiver need not be all doom and gloom. There may be no magic bullet, but there is plenty we can do to make our lives easier and relieve stress. The first step is to recognize the problem, and the second step is to deal with it. Winston Churchill famously said: “We are still masters of our fate. We still are captains of our souls.” Less famously, I say: Don’t let your loved one’s chronic pain turn into your chronic stress.

As caregivers, we need a strategy to deal with our own emotional stress. No strategy is perfect, so we must choose the strategy that works for us. It can be multiple strategies, but lack of action is not an option. We must take care of ourselves if we want to take care of our loved ones.

What works for you? There are countless programs, roadmaps, workshops, webinars, books, and TED Talks. What do you choose? My tip is look for solutions that you like doing. Do you like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness, or do you prefer rock climbing, hiking, and biking? Do you prefer to read books, listen to podcasts, or binge-watch Netflix? Choose whatever will help you lower your stress and strengthen your resilience. 

U.S. Pain’s recent survey asked what activities caregivers do to make sure they take care of themselves. The most common responses included: participating in hobbies such as gardening or crossword puzzles (56%), exercise/sports (53%), proper nutrition (39%), socializing (38%), and spirituality (35%).

Resilience is a much-used term, and it has different meanings for soldiers, psychiatrists, and philosophers. For our purpose as caregivers, resilience includes self-care and has four main components: regular physical activity, healthy eating, active relaxation, and adequate sleep. It may sound obvious, but caregiving is highly demanding work, so as caregivers we need time to recuperate. This is not a luxury: it is a necessity. As they say, a car won’t run if there is no gas in the tank.

In addition to strengthening our resilience, it is important to recognize our limits and do a reality check of our personal situation. Most of us do not possess superpowers, so we must acknowledge and accept our potential for caregiver burnout. We must accept that our lives have changed, adapt to these changes, and set realistic, achievable goals. It may be uncomfortable, but we should accept that we may need help.  Where possible, we should turn to others to handle some tasks. When possible, we should find someone we trust, such as a friend, relative, co-worker, or neighbor, to discuss how we feel. We can’t do it all on our own.

Finding community: Gaining comfort from others who understand

Finally, the best advice may be to seek support from our peers—other caregivers. The U.S. Pain Foundation hosts a free monthly support group for caregivers or care partners of individuals living with chronic pain. Facilitated by trained leaders, one of whom is me, participants share information about their experiences and as well as personal tips on how to deal with the toughest issues, spanning the whole range from managing doctors’ visits, to coping with isolation, to suicidal ideation. These support groups provide a haven for sharing feelings, learning to adjust to our changed lives, and discussing coping mechanisms. Each month, a different topic is chosen, and everyone attending has the opportunity to talk. Our mission is to provide a clear structure and purpose… and isn’t that precisely what caregivers need?

-Malcolm Herman, Director NCCPPP, Co-facilitator Caregivers/Care Partners Support Group, U.S. Pain Foundation

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