Small Changes, Big Shift: Tiny practices can help caregivers care for themselves.

Taking time for myself saved my life. This may sound like a bold and crazy statement, but it is true.

As a parent of a child with intense medical needs and severe developmental delays, I know firsthand the mental, emotional and physical strength that constant caregiving requires. It is a roller coaster ride that is filled with challenges and uncertainties and can make you feel like you are being pulled in multiple directions, with little time left over to think.

Two months after the birth of my daughter, I had hit rock bottom in terms of my own health and well-being. I knew that I desperately needed to find a way to nurture myself while I fulfilled my role as a parent and as a caregiver. I knew the basics: eat right, exercise and get a good night’s rest, and I did that as much as possible.

But there were many days when the reality of the situation was too overwhelming. Days that prompted me to find creative methods that would help to sustain me, even at the roughest of times.

My daughter had a care plan to meet her needs. So I decided to come up with some easy, doable self-care strategies to give me a boost of energy when I needed it, as well as a fresh perspective.

Over time, I found that the practices had a cumulative effect. Not only did they provide on-the-spot relief when I was feeling overwhelmed, out of sorts, stressed or angry; they became a set of tools that I could use when I had a few extra moments. They became a solid foundation to creating a balanced, nourished and enlivened life.

Here is what I did. Please note that you don’t have to do all the things every day—and a little goes a long way. I suggest you start with what sounds the easiest. Just remember: Make time for you each day. Whether you only have a few moments, 30 minutes or an hour to devote to your wellness, turn to your favorite technique and give yourself a dose of love.

The following are tried-and-true mini-energizers that allow us to invite our relaxation response. What is our relaxation response? It is the exact opposite of our stress response, which puts our body on alert. The stress response can be cumulative over time and leads to frazzled nerves, erratic emotions and potentially long-term health problems. So, we need to get comfortable guiding our body and our mind to relax.

For the most part, these are go-anywhere, do-anytime suggestions. I have done them in my living room, in the doctor’s waiting room, in the grocery store line, and during a meeting with school staff.

Body awareness. When we are experiencing tension of any sort, our body and breath are restricted, and we can feel like things are closing in on us and weighing us down. To counter tension, take a few moments to check in with your body. Notice how you are standing or sitting.

When we sit or stand with a long, straight spine, we relax overworked muscles, release held tension and allow energy to flow more freely throughout the body. This simple realignment subtly but positively affects our whole being.

Let your shoulders relax, down and away from your ears. Invite yourself to soften the muscles of your face, relax the jaw, close and open your hands, and then let them relax. A shift or realignment in our posture can truly realign the moment.

Breath awareness. When feeling tense, muddled, uneasy or frantic, bring your awareness to your breath. Your breath is your constant companion and helpmate. When emotions threaten to overtake you: pause. Acknowledge there is tension and consciously invite the breath.

This can be done sitting, standing or lying down. Whatever position you choose, allow the spine to be long and straight, creating space for breath to flow. If possible, allow your eyes to close and just be
aware of your breath as it flows in and out of the nostrils.

Focus your awareness on the rise of the belly on the inhale and float the navel back to the spine on the exhale. The breath will naturally begin to soften, deepen and grow longer in length and volume. You are now inviting the relaxation response and refreshing your energy. Allowing the eyes to close is refreshing to the eyes and allows for external distractions to lessen.

Nature. Step outside for a few minutes. You may notice yourself automatically standing taller and taking a fuller breath as the body begins to relax.

Take a look at what is surrounding you. Notice the colors of the surrounding plants or the sky. Sense the feel of the wind, sun or rain on your skin. What does the day smell like? What do you hear? Birds? Traffic? Children playing?

Expanding our awareness out into our environment allows our perception to expand and helps connect us to the world that surrounds us. Allow yourself to feel expansive. If you can’t get out into nature, invite nature in. Sitting next to lush houseplants or a window with a lovely view can offer many of the benefits of being outside. Playing music that incorporates the sounds of nature can also bring freshness indoors.

Words of encouragement. Is there a word, quote, saying or song lyric that inspires you or touches your heart? One positive word can invite ease and lift the spirit. Collect words or phrases that have meaning to you, that make you smile or bring you joy. Post them around your house, and in your work space or car. Keep them in your wallet, backpack or desk drawers. When your eyes fall upon these words or phrases, connect to the message and invite it into your day.

I started with simple words, handwritten on scrap paper, such as: Love, Peace, Smile, Joy, and Beauty. These were the qualities that I wanted to surround me and I was able to feel the pleasure and delight in the words when I found them. Think of it as your personal call to greater self-care and self-love.

At first glance, these self-nourishing practices may seem too simple to have a noticeable impact on our well-being. Yet they can and will, if we use them regularly.

Being a caregiver is a demanding endeavor. Self-care engages us in techniques that balance the effects of the physical, emotional and mental stressors in our lives. Connecting with nature and the power of loving words allows us to slow things down a bit and find peace in times of stress. Being aware of our breath and our body’s alignment creates the space for us to consciously move into a more harmonious, relaxed and steady way of being.

With my commitment to care for myself, I found more energy, patience and strength to do all the things I needed and wanted to do. And that is how I saved a life.

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