Carers Need Self-Care

Much of the focus in the resources on mindfulness is on ways to help people who are suffering from conditions that are debilitating such as mental illness or chronic pain.  Very little of the resources focus on ways to help carers in their role – ways to manage the physical and psychological toll of caring for someone else on a constant and extended basis.  Carers are the overlooked group – forgotten by others and themselves.

Carers: people who care and support others

Carers come in all shapes and sizes  – adults looking after ageing parents who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; siblings caring for a family member who has a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, anxiety or depression; or anyone caring for someone suffering from a physical condition such as paraplegia, chronic pain or cancer.  According to Carers Australia, carers are people who provide unpaid care and support to family members and friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, an alcohol or other drug issue or who are frail aged.

The toll of caring

The “burden of care” can be felt both physically and psychologically.  The physical toll for carers can be excessive – they can become exhausted and/or accident-prone, suffer from sleep disorders or experience bodily symptoms of stress such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue or related conditions like fibromyalgia. The physical toll of caring can be experienced as cumulative stress and lead to chronic conditions that adversely affect the carer’s long-term health.

The psychological toll of caring can also be cumulative in nature and extremely variable in its impact.  Carers can experience negative emotions such as resentment or anger, despite their compassion towards the person who is being cared for.  They can become extremely frustrated over the paucity of time available for themselves, the opportunity cost in terms of inability to travel or to be away for any length of time, the lack of freedom (feeling tied down), the lack of improvement in the condition of the person being cared for or the financial impost of caring (preventing desired savings/purchases or home improvements). 

Carers do not have inexhaustible personal resources – physical, psychological and financial.  They can suffer from compassion fatigue which can be hastened by emotional contagion resulting from close observation of, and identification with, the pain of a loved one.  Hence, carers can experience depression, anxiety or grief – reflecting the emotional state of their loved ones who are suffering.

The toll on carers has been the subject of extensive research.  For example, Emma Stein studied the psychological impact on older female carers engaged in informal aged care.  Sally Savage and Susan Bailey reviewed the literature on the mental health impact on the carer of their caregiving role and found that the impact was highly variable and moderated by factors such as the relationship between caregiver and receiver and the level of social support for the carer.

Being mindful of your needs as a carer

The fundamental problem is that carers become so other-focused that they overlook their own needs – their need for rest, time away, relaxation and enjoyment.  Normal needs can become intensified by the burden of care and the associated physical and psychological stressors.  Carers tend to neglect their own needs in the service of others.  However, in the process, they endanger their own mental and physical health and, potentially, inhibit their capacity to sustain quality care.

Carers can inform themselves of the inherent physical and psychological consequences of being a caregiver, particularly if this involves intensive, long-term caring of a close loved one (where feelings are heightened, and the personal costs intensified).  Mental Health Carers Australia highlights the fact that people who care for someone with a mental health illness are increasingly at risk of “developing a mental illness themselves”.

Self-care for the carer

One of the more effective ways that carers can look after themselves is to draw on support networks – whether they involve family, colleagues or friends; broad social networks; or specific networks designed for carers.  Arafmi, for example, provides carer support for caregivers of people with a mental illness and their services include a 24-hour carer helpline, carers forum, blog, educational resources, workshops and carer support groups. Carers Queensland provides broader-based carer resources and support groups.

Carers tend to go it alone, not wanting to burden others with “their” problem(s).  They are inclined to refuse help from others when it is offered because of embarrassment, fear of dependency, concern for the other person offering help, inability to “let go” or any other inhibiting emotion or thought pattern – in the process, they may stop themselves from sharing the load.

Carers could seek professional help from qualified professionals such as medical doctors or psychologists if they notice that they are experiencing physical or psychological symptoms resulting from carer stress.

Mindfulness for carers

Carers can use mindfulness practices, reflection and meditation to help them cope with the physical and emotional stresses of caregiving.  Specific meditations can address negative feelings, especially those of resentment and the associated guilt.  Mindfulness practices can introduce processes that enable the carer to wind down and relax – such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating or using awareness as the default when caught up with “waiting” (a constant companion of the carer role).

Carers can employ techniques such as body scan to relax their bodies and release physical tension.  Deep, conscious breathing can also help in times of intense stress such as when experiencing panic. For people who are religious, prayer can help to provide calm and hope.

Dr. Chris Walsh (mindfulness.org.au), offers a simple mindfulness exercise for self-care by carers in his website article, Caring for CarersThe exercise involves focusing, re-centering, imagining and noticing (thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations).

As carers grow in mindfulness, they can become more aware of the stress they are under and the physical and psychological toll involved. This growing awareness can lead to effective self-care through social and professional support and meditation and/or mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can help carers develop resilience and calmness in the face of their stressful caregiver role.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How Can We Manage When Our Daughter or Son is in Pain?


Susan Piver
, Creator of the Open Heart Project, addresses this question in response to an inquiry from one of her many followers. The danger when someone very close to us is suffering, is that we are tempted to take on their pain, to be so empathetic that we treat their suffering as if it is our own.

This identification with the sufferer was the very problem raised by Susan’s follower in relation to her daughter’s pain:

How do we prevent ourselves from hurting on behalf of the other person?…. Her pain feels like my pain, and makes me so upset and sad. 

Susan’s response is given by way of a brief input and a guided meditation. She asserts that you cannot prevent yourself from feeling the pain of someone close to you – to do so would stop you from feeling anything. You would effectively turn off your feelings to protect yourself but in the process destroy what makes us essentially human – the capacity to feel and be compassionate.

The damaging effects of closing your heart to pain

Susan uses the analogy of a gate which has two positions – open and closed. So our heart, or our feeling with and for another, tends to be in one or other of these positions – either open hearted or closed. Susan deliberately called her life’s work the Open Heart Project because it is essentially designed to help people to open up to the full range of their experience – beauty and darkness, happiness and pain, freedom and restraint.

Susan paints a graphic picture of the difference between an open heart and one that is closed by describing the difference as that “between awake and asleep, alive and numb, present and deluded”. She suggests, however, that you cannot just be totally identified with the other person’s pain – you have to be able to achieve a separation from the other’s suffering – not own the suffering of another. Richard Davidson describes this capacity as “social cognition” which his research into the science of compassion demonstrates is essential for the “balance and welfare” of the person observing the suffering.

Susan cautions that we need to be conscious of the “toll” that feeling for another’s suffering has on ourselves. In her view, shutting off our own pain to protect our self is really self-damaging because it numbs us. The way forward is to feel the pain but actively engage in genuine self-care, whatever form that can take for you personally (this could involve exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, prayer, time with family and/or friends, accessing social/professional support or a combination of these).

Managing through compassion meditation

One of the benefits of being able to manage the pain you experience when your daughter or son is suffering is that it lays the foundation, or “pathway” as Susan describes it, to genuine compassion for others. This capacity for genuine compassion can be further developed through different forms of compassion meditation. Daniel Goleman and his neuroscience colleagues have demonstrated through research that compassion meditation develops in people an “altered trait” that is evidenced through increased kindness and generosity.

Compassion meditation, often described as loving kindness meditation, frequently begins with extending kind thoughts to someone close to you, progressing to an acquaintance, to someone you have heard about or a group of people experiencing some form of suffering and finally taking in someone you find difficult. This expanding expression of compassion can be underpinned by self-compassion meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the pain and suffering of those close to us. If we shut off these empathetic feelings, we can numb ourselves to the full range of human experience and prevent ourselves from expressing our feelings. Active self-care is essential to manage the personal toll of being empathetic and maintaining an open heart. Compassion meditation can build our capacity to sustain compassionate action not only for those closest to us but to everyone, whether we like them or not.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

What Is Your Unique Purpose in Life?

In the previous post on Finding Your True Purpose, I drew on the interview podcast by Stephen Cope.  In that post, I explored what Stephen refers to as the “four-stage path of action”.  The first stage, however, discerning your true purpose, is where people often become stuck and unable to move forward, for multiple reasons (including doubts).

Stephen suggests several ways to help you progress in deciding what is your unique purpose in life – what best utilises your knowledge, skills and personality for the greater good.  This can be a challenging task and may take some time to discern – it could involve immersing yourself in an area of interest to establish the needs that are present in that arena.  Research may precede action.

What is your unique purpose in life?

Some of Stephen’s suggestions may help with gaining clarity about your unique purpose.   He suggests that you can focus on three areas to gain further insight into any “unconscious obstacles”.

  1. What lights you up? – what in your life generates positive energy, captures your commitment or engages you over lengthy periods?  The way to access this is to write a list of things that light you up, without censoring the list.  Look for themes or connections amongst items on your list, and you may find a pointer to your unique purpose.
  2. What is your deepest duty right now? – you will have duties as an employee, friend, colleague, parent, citizen, partner.  What duty flowing from any of these roles is felt so deeply that if you do not fulfil it, “you will feel a profound sense of self-betrayal”?
  3. What personal challenges do you face? – do you have a health issue, relationship challenge, a problem involving your child or children or a workplace issue?  What do these challenges inspire you to do? It may mean helping others to show self-care or establishing a support group for parents who have lost a child or for people experiencing work stress.  Some people have established a foundation or committee to enable them to engage others in supporting them in their endeavours to do something for the common good.

Famous people such as Gandhi and Robert Frost found their unique purpose and proceeded  to develop what Stephen calls “unified action” – where you increase your focus on the area of interest and peel away anything that is not contributing to your unique  purpose.     Extraordinary people have achieved extraordinary outcomes but there are many more “ordinary people” who have excelled at what they do because they have realised a singular focus and a commitment to act in accord with that focus.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection (particularly on our interests, our duties and our challenges), we can gain clarity about our unique purpose, find creative ways to fine tune our actions and increase the integration of that purpose into our daily lives.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of cocoparisienne on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Hidden Challenges in Self-Compassion Meditation

In the previous post, I explored what happens when a negative experience continues to recur because of our habituated behaviour, even after employing the R.A.I.N. meditation process.  I then focused on using self-compassion to break the bonds of negative self-evaluation that inevitably occurs.

However, self-compassion, being kind to ourselves, brings up its own challenges and resistances.

Challenges embedded in self-compassion meditation
  1. The evasive end goal

How do you know you have arrived?  When can you say you have reached the end point – completed the journey of self-discovery through self-compassion?   There is no single end point – only a deeper level of progression into our inner world and what lies below the surface.

2. The defences we have developed

We avoid pain at every opportunity and self-compassion meditation makes us vulnerable – we have to visit the centre of our internal hurt.  We ward off this vulnerability by convincing ourselves that we must be doing it wrong because this keen sense of vulnerability should not be happening.

3. Failure to recognise the pervasiveness of our negative self-evaluations

There are typically so many moments and situations where we view ourselves as not measuring up or “falling short”.  It is so easy to deny or dismiss these negative self-evaluations with a flippant and groundless self-belief that “I am not like that”.   Yet the sense of “unworthiness” can impact every facet of our life at work, at home and in the community.  We lack trust in others because we are concerned that someone might find out what we are really like.

4. “False refuges” 

When we think we do not meet the expectations of our peers, family or society generally, we may employ strategies that Tara Brach calls “false refuges” – ways of numbing the pain of our shame or of competing to deflect self-examination and self-realisation.

5. Unable to give ourselves self-compassion because it is too big a challenge

People may say that they can’t experience the real sense of vulnerability nor give themselves self-compassion.  Tara Brach suggests that, in these situations, they at least should think of someone else who would be able and willing to offer them loving kindness.

Self-compassion requires vulnerability

Tara Brach, in the  Power of Awareness Course,  suggests that the beginning of self-compassion is:

To be able to see clearly that place of vulnerability and pain – that place of self-aversion, turned on ourselves.  The alchemy of self-compassion is to touch the place of vulnerability – to really feel the “ouch”, the place inside us that is really hurting.  In that place is a natural tenderness.

So, self-compassion is both feeling the pain and hurt of self-realisation and offering ourselves kindness and acceptance.  It is not a passive stance, but an active one of entering the pain zone while fortified by our own deep kindness and self-care.  It involves breaking down our defences, being open to the extent of our self-denigration and avoiding the “false refuges” that are forever a temptation to avoid pain.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices, we are better able to identify and remove our defences, to cope with the pain of realisation and to reach out to ourselves with loving kindness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Curriculum_Photografia on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.