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How Mindfulness Can Help Prevent Caregiver Burnout

Audrey Meinertzhagen

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As a Volunteer Caregiver to the Zen Hospice Project and a Course Manager at the CareGivers Project, Audrey is passionate about improving the standards of care for older adults and educating caregivers on the principles of mindfulness and self-care.

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The power of mediation in reducing caregiver stress and burnout

We will all be caregivers at some point in life. The level of involvement may vary, but we will face the challenge of meeting the needs of a loved one who is either temporarily or permanently no longer self sufficient. Under the best of circumstances this is a stressful situation; to witness one who is ill or losing capacity is difficult enough, but having to adjust to the routine of how to best meet their needs brings complexities into the mix that were not there before.

This can quickly overwhelm us to the point that we make deals with our own needs, “I’ll do that later” or “I’ll reschedule my appointment for next month” or “I’ll have to give up my weekly lunch with my bestie, at least for awhile.” We start sacrificing, and before we know it, we are in the realm of what is referred to as caregiver burnout.

There is a slippery slope to caregiving that can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment, and detachment from other areas of life. Once ensconced in one or more of these areas, we are well on our way to burn out. If you suspect that you are leaning toward or experiencing any one of these impulses or feelings, consider spending some time figuring out how to manage your stress.

One of the most effective tools on how to prevent caregiver burnout is proving to be engaging in a mindfulness practice such as meditation. Should the prospect of this sound strange to you, hang on for a bit, the great authority of science has validated what many spiritual teachers have been teaching for thousands of years: that cultivating a mindful meditation practice increases inner peace and fortifies our ability to meet the countless challenges faced by the caregiver.

How to Prevent Caregiver Burnout

A mindfulness practice to many seems counterintuitive. Sitting and following one’s breath seems like a useless endeavor especially given the to-do list and items that are falling by the wayside day by day.

But in reality, taking some time each and every day to sit and follow your breath will help the thought stream of your mind slow down and serve your  wellbeing.

Here is a quick outline of how to simply begin mindful meditation:

Same time, same channel. Schedule this mindful meditation time for the same time and in the same spot (if you are traveling or in a different location just try to keep to the same time) each and every day.

Early morning works best for many people. When starting this practice, keep it short and sweet. Spend five to ten minutes sitting upright on the floor or in a chair with your feet on the ground. Set a timer; there are some great meditation apps out there that can time you and gently ring a beautiful bell when your session is over. Doing this consistently is where you will find the magic.

Five to ten minutes of sitting in the morning, following your breath, allowing the thoughts to flow by, noticing when you are stuck in one thought stream and taking that as nudge to gently return to your breath is the game. It can be a tricky business. We tell ourselves when we are starting out that we can’t shut off our thoughts…well, that is not the point.The important thing to remember is  recognizing when we are lost in our thoughts and when they make a run for the hills and we race after them. It is taking a moment to grab these thoughts and tell them you will attend to them but they need to quiet down right now and then just be with the breath.

Give yourself five minutes with your breath. et a timer for five minutes and do this every day for a week. If you prefer to meditate longer, meditate longer. . See what happens. This is a practice that is quite beneficial to caregivers. Various studies done over the past decade confirm that among  the myriad of emotions triggered by caregiver burnout, using mindful meditation can help us manage and reduce stress, anxiety, and fear.

Try it. There are many programs popping up all the time in communities throughout the country. You can also access a bunch of very helpful information on the web. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs provide a comprehensive training on how to slow down and take the steps toward managing the mind. Adding a program like this to your schedule will, in the long run, give you more space and time.

But let’s say that you are skeptical. How about simply trying your own experiment for a few dayswhen you are still in bed i and  have just opened your eyes. Your mind may already be racing with your to-do list and your mind has already made a dozen or so decisions about how your day is going to be. These little thoughts can affect you throughout the day. It is here in the quiet of your bedroom that you are determining how you will interpret and respond to many of the events that are ahead of you.

Take these early morning minutes and use them to your advantage. Give yourself a few precious minutes of clarity that will inform how you will proceed withyour day. Ground yourself in your intentions for the day. Orient yourself to how you want the day to go. This does not mean that you will be dropping away from your obligations of the day. Instead, think mindfully about how you want to engage in them. What are your priorities and what do you need to put into place to take care of yourself so that you can be a present and attentive caregiver?

Track how you do each day on the issue(s) you decided to give some extra attention to and at the end of the week review how things are going. I’ll bet that getting just a little more mindful will bring an increase of ease to your day despite the fact that the circumstances remain largely unchanged.

Self-Care and Ending Burnout

The science is now confirming what meditation practitioners have known for thousands of years. Mindful meditation is the path to deepening our understanding of our minds. It shows us that we are not our thoughts, but that we have thoughts and they can be managed and interacted with in a way that increases our level of self-care.

For us to be vital and helpful caregivers we must learn how to care ourselves while caring for aging parents and become aware of how we approach life. As caregivers we need to understand that self-care, being quiet, sitting, and not always doing are the keys to being able to beautifully care for our loved ones when the going gets tough.

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