Whether it's for an ailing relative or a close friend, millions of Americans provide unpaid care for another person every day in the United States. Although it might be a noble and rewarding job, acting as a caregiver is hard work. It can lead to chronic stress and fatigue, which is why practicing self-care is vital.
“People think self-care is indulgent,” says Jennifer Kogan*, a licensed family therapist based in Washington, D.C. “They think it means a trip to the spa or getting a mani-pedi. But self-care is just something you need to do as a human being to take care of yourself and live in the world.”
Generally, self-care means identifying one's own needs — physical, social or emotional — and taking steps to meet them. But for people in caregiving positions, this can be a challenge, as caregivers tend to overlook their own needs. Luckily, self-care can be practiced in many different ways, simply and for free. Here are four ways to start.
Practice compassion — with yourself
As a caregiver, you know all about practicing compassion with others. But because caring for a loved one can be time-consuming, you may forget to practice it with the person who sometimes needs it most: yourself.
“Self-compassion is connected to self-care,” Kogan says. “It relates to how you talk to yourself and how you move through your day. Either you can be kind to yourself, or you can think, 'You idiot!' when you make a mistake or run late. What you tell yourself matters, and it affects how you feel.”
To practice self-compassion, Kogan recommends starting with simple phrases and using neutral language. “You don't have to tell yourself really wonderful things. It might feel fake or phony to use really flowery language with yourself,” Kogan says. “Just start with something neutral, like 'I made a mistake, and I'll correct it tomorrow.'” Even neutral language can make a huge difference in how you feel about yourself.
Ultimately, self-compassion can help make people better at what they do, especially when it comes to something like caregiving. “People who are kinder to themselves tend to perform better and be more compassionate to other people,” says Kogan.
Find support from other caregivers
Although it centers around spending time with others, caregiving can still be lonely. And it can be hard to get the support you need from friends and family who may not be able to empathize.
Caregiver support groups, both online and in person, are an excellent way to connect to other caregivers. They can not only be an outlet for some much-needed relief, but they can also arm you with practical information that will make your job easier.
You can find online support groups at the Family Caregiver Alliance, Facebook, Caregiver Action Network or the AARP.** To find local support groups you can attend in person, try nearby hospitals and other local organizations. You can also hear stories from other caregivers at Let's Change the Conversation.
Spend quality time with yourself — and make it non-negotiable
Taking care of others requires focusing your energy almost entirely on the person in your care. But in order to care for yourself, you need to turn your attention to what you need, instead. Mindfulness — a term for practicing awareness of your thoughts and feelings in the present moment — can help you uncover your own emotional and physical needs apart from your loved ones.
“We can practice mindfulness by breathing deeply and noticing where we have feelings in our body,” says Kogan. “Then we can ask ourselves, what quality does this feeling have? Does it feel hot? Does it feel like a bunch of bricks sitting on my chest?” When people are mindful of their feelings, they can make healthy choices to deal with those feelings rather than letting them fester, build up and cause burnout. Regular mindfulness meditation has also been known to lower stress, bolster the immune system and improve concentration, all of which are crucial when you are in a high-stress situation.
Set boundaries with the people you care for
If you're exhausted, miserable and constantly giving more of yourself to take care of others, Kogan warns that some major boundary setting may be in order.
“A boundary is simply deciding what's OK and what's not OK,” Kogan says. “Boundaries are really hard for people to understand and to set, because some of us grow up thinking we should do everything we can for another person and never say no. But if you ignore your own needs, that's not healthy.”
For some caregivers, a boundary may be as simple as defining set hours of care and not veering outside those hours unless it’s an emergency. For others, it may be clarifying what is and is not an acceptable way to be spoken to and what the consequences will be if the behavior continues. Enforcing a boundary may feel harsh, but it’s what gives you time and space to take care of yourself as well as the ability to continue to do what you need to do well.
“Learning about how to set boundaries is tricky,” says Kogan. “Start by asking yourself, 'Does taking care of this person feel good or bad? Am I giving up all of my time to support this person?' Gauge how you feel so you can start taking care of yourself first.”