Mindfulness Meditation for Caregivers

Everybody needs a break — kids need recess, workers take coffee breaks, judges adjourn. But too often family caregivers don’t take breaks. ‘How can I,’ they reason, ‘when I’ve got a to-do list that’s 27 hours long!’ Which makes the need for a break all the more important.

Here’s a very simple suggestion for how to take a break — try meditation. I make this suggestion not as a magazine editor, but as someone who has taught meditation for 20 years and witnessed its beneficial effect on many people. For this article, I also talked to a psychologist and a psychotherapist who have written books on mindfulness meditation specifically for family caregivers.

There are a number of small studies that have examined the potential benefits of meditation for family caregivers of patients with varying conditions such as dementia, cancer and other chronic conditions. They typically found meditation had a beneficial effect on depression, insomnia, stress and caregiver burden. In addition to these caregiver-specific examinations, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) website, there is evidence that meditation may have a positive effect on blood pressure, pain and other conditions. NCCIH also offers information about the safety and side effects of meditation.

Time & Attitude

Lack of time is the first objection caregivers have to taking a break of any kind, much less a regular meditation practice. Here’s the flaw in that thinking — if you don’t take a break, you may break, and then who will take care of your loved one?

Nancy Kriseman

Psychotherapist Nancy Kriseman, author of The Mindful Caregiver: Finding Ease in the Caregiving Journey, often runs into this attitude in her work with caregivers: “I say to them, ‘You make the time for whoever you’re caring for. Why is it not important to make time for yourself?’” To illustrate the mindset, she outlines three distinctions — selfish, selfless and self-full. “Caregivers are generally not selfish,” she said. “In fact, they’re usually over-the-top selfless, doing everything and putting everybody in front of themselves. Self-full means that you step back and recognize what you can and can’t do and what other people might be able to help you do, so you can let go of your ‘should do’s’ for your survivor and make sure you put yourself in the mix. The self-full person declares, ‘I matter too.’ People confuse being self-full with being selfish, and nobody, particularly a caregiver, wants to be thought of as selfish.”

“Caregivers have a lot of emotional and physical stress, and they generally don’t take time for themselves, to reflect on their own experience,” said clinical psychologist Julia Mayer, Psy.D., co-author with her husband, clinical psychologist Barry Jacobs, Psy.D., of Meditations for Caregivers — Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family. “Mindfulness gives them access to their own feelings and makes them less likely to feel overwhelmed. It reduces anxiety and depression and increases feelings of resilience. It makes you more effective.”

Julia Mayer

If you are worried about the time, consider Mayer’s last point carefully — meditation makes you more effective. In other words, you get more done in less time. In my years teaching meditation, that was the universal experience of those who took up the practice of mindfulness. If you get more done in less time, meditation may be a time neutral, or possibly even a timesaving, experience.

But you have to make the time, no one is going to give it to you. You will have to put it on your to-do list and defend that time against other demands. Think of it as a gift you give yourself to improve yourself. “Carve out a little bit of time and then commit to practicing,” Kriseman said. “Start small, five minutes will do at first, but commit to actually sitting for five-minutes with your eyes closed. Take some deep breaths, and pay attention to your heart beat and how you’re feeling.”

What is Mindfulness?

“I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (a well-known meditation advocate) definition of mindfulness: clearing the mind of obtrusive thoughts,” Mayer said. “It’s a state of nonreactive awareness. I find that focusing on gratitude helps to create that nonreactive awareness. It gives the caregiver a perspective that this is a moment in time, and it will pass.”

Kriseman distinguishes between burning out and numbing out: “When you’re burned out, you basically realize you can’t go any longer; you’re at your wit’s end, and about to collapse, so you stop because you realize, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she said. “However, when you’re numbed out, you don’t realize how exhausted you are, and just keep on going, which can be very dangerous to caregivers’ health. Mindfulness is a way to help caregivers recognize when they’re getting to that numbed out place. Mindfulness can help them recognize where they are at any given moment in time. Mindfulness is self-awareness.”

Practice Isn't Optional

Generally, when a person meditates, they feel better — more relaxed, less reactive. However, it is the practice of meditation, doing it every day, that brings the benefits itemized in the studies mentioned above — reducing depression, insomnia, stress and caregiver burden, while increasing resilience, confidence and self-control.

We all know the axiom “practice makes perfect,” and that works because of incremental improvement over time. In other words, every time you meditate, you get better at meditating. And that improvement is cumulative. At first, it changes how you react, but after a few months of daily meditation, most people become consistently calmer and more patient in their day-to-day experience.

There is another aspect to practice that we tend to forget: Practice isn’t optional; we are always practicing something. If you’re not practicing calmness every day, then by default you may be practicing getting stressed and upset. Which qualities best support you, your health — and your loved one?

There are many forms of meditation and countless techniques. At its most basic, meditation is changing your focus from the outside to the inside. Meditation practice is making that refocusing a part of your daily routine. It is a conditioning process, and the reinforcement is the relaxation you feel. The reward is self-awareness that will improve you.

Hold meditation lightly, don’t expect it to transform your life overnight. Over time, with practice, you will be less reactive and more resilient; you will become more present in your life. All of which will support you in the role of caring for your loved one.

This information is provided as a resource to our readers. The tips, products or resources listed or linked to have not been reviewed or endorsed by the American Stroke Association.

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