The Gift of Caregiving

Written by Elaine Smookler, RP. Faculty, Centre for Mindfulness Studies. Columnist- “Inner Wisdom” Mindful Magazine , Faculty, eMindful

Caring for our family is one of the most precious gifts we can offer. When we are able to be genuine and present with our aging parents, our children, or anyone who needs our help, we touch what is most beautiful about the human experience, the opportunity to be real, raw and tender when it is most needed. Sometimes, however, we might feel so stretched that we lose sight of taking care of ourselves. This chips away at the foundations of resilience needed for a family to thrive. At these times we may become so busy, tired and depleted, that we forget how to balance caring for others with caring for ourselves. Before burnout takes you out of the game entirely, it can be helpful to be aware of some basic ways to stay well and nurture your own resilience so you and your family can thrive.

Mindful Resilience
Mindfulness training can support our resilience in a number of ways. With a regular mindfulness practice, we become more aware of our inner experiences. This allows us to notice our basic needs such as nutrition, rest, and meaningful connection with others, and when these are not being met. It can also help us become aware of habits, like always,placing other people’s needs before our own, that put us at the risk of burnout. With this real-time awareness, we are better equipped to make choices in the moment that serve us, as well as those we care for.

Another resilience benefit of practicing mindfulness, is that as we are more easily able to connect to our intentions and values for how we want to live our life. By regularly reconnecting to our intentions and values for how we want to approach caregiving, which might include open-heartedness, curiosity, compassion and a genuine willingness to connect with loved ones, we’re likely to feel reenergized and more fulfilled.

With mindful awareness, we can take the moment to bring ourselves back to the present and really listen to ourselves and others.

Mindfulness Practice
When you’re caring for others, learning to mindfully H.A.L.T., may be just what you need to make sure you’re not sacrificing your own needs in the process. The H.A.L.T. practice has been used by AA and others as a simple guide to noticing whether you need time to recharge in order to keep everyone well.

H.A.L.T. stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. By going through this checklist, you’ll be better able to keep your caring and compassionate cool with those that matter most.

Hungry – What’s your hunger and fullness level? Has it been a while since you’ve eaten? Are you eating nutritious foods that will sustain you? When you skip meals, your blood sugar drops. Add that chemical imbalance to a family matter requiring all your attention and you may find yourself tired, irritable, and unable to concentrate on what’s needed in the moment. Giving yourself permission to take time to eat is an essential part of resilience.

Angry – Even the kindest and the most compassionate person is still a person, and will experience the full range of emotions, including anger. There will be caregiving situations beyond your control, that seem to be crossing the line of what is reasonable for you to give, and these might ignite anger. It’s normal. Mindfulness training encourages us to be with whatever is going on – including anger. That doesn’t mean act on it, it means gently let yourself notice, “angry feelings are here.” By noticing and becoming curious about the experience of anger, you have a chance to become more aware of what your own needs are, and even take a small step in meeting those. It might be that you need a 5 minute break, or that you feel underappreciated for your efforts, or maybe you need to practice saying, “Thank you, no.” to a request. If you can better learn how to meet your own needs by listening to all your emotions, instead of being swept away by them, it will be easier to release difficult feelings and bring more balance between caring for your family, as you care for yourself.

Lonely – This step could include feeling as if you are alone in carrying a burden. Can you let yourself acknowledge this feeling? Can you notice where it sits in your body? As you become more self-compassionate you nurture the awareness that you are there for yourself, as well. This step encourages noticing when boredom has set in. When you find yourself feeling impatient, or task-oriented and beleaguered as a care-giver, stop, take a breath, and take a moment to really look at this person you are caring for. Notice something about your relationship with that person that makes it meaningful and important for you to maintain a vivid connection to compassionate action. Feel what it is to reach out to others by reaching out to yourself.

Tired – Sleep can seem like a luxury for many who find themselves with too many things on their plate and too few hours in a day. Everyone needs sleep to survive. Lowering expectations of how much you can give can be one way to encourage a sleep-friendly situation. If the ideal amount of sleep seems out of reach, consider how you could get even 30 minutes more per night, or squeeze in a nap during the day. And even if you don’t find more hours to sleep, you can replenish yourself in other ways, by savouring moments of joy and connection; walking in nature, limiting screen time, and letting yourself focus on one thing at a time instead of multi-tasking.

If you’re interested in learning more mindfulness practices to deepen your resilience and your enjoyment of caring for your family, join eMindful this week. Caring practitioners will gently guide you through a variety of calming, enlivening, centering practices to help you find resilience and joy in the ebbs and flows of family life.

Elaine Smookler is an eMindful instructor and registered psychotherapist, with a 20 year mindfulness practice.


Also published on Medium.