Coping with Daily Stresses
One way to improve your ability to decrease stress in the life of someone you care for is to decrease stress in your own life. This presents an obvious paradox. Stress reduction can be a significant challenge for anyone. It often requires time, effort, and even counseling or training to achieve. How can you decrease everyday stress while you are caring for someone with a serious mental illness?
When Things Get Too Hot
It is to be expected that the trying experiences of dealing with schizophrenia will result in times of frustration and anger for both the patient and family members. Train yourself to recognize when you are shifting from conversation and supportive interaction to emotional conflict. Learn to walk away when things get too intense. Tell your loved one that you are taking a break and will talk to him later. If the situation requires an immediate decision, stall for time until you can regain a healthy emotional distance from the topic.
Dealing with the effects of a disease like schizophrenia requires you to distance yourself from your emotional brain, the part of the brain that takes things personally. This is difficult to achieve. As a good parent or close relative, you can't cut someone off emotionally, but try to be clear in your own mind when you are dealing with the consequences of the disease as opposed to dealing with your loved one. The first requires distance, the second empathy.
Try to maintain an emotional distance from the disease while continuing to love the person affected by it. The symptoms of schizophrenia will try your patience, challenge you, frighten you, and even insult you. Realize that this is not the intention of the person struggling with schizophrenia. Keeping a loving distance will make you a better caregiver.
You have a harder job than do nurses or doctors, who have learned to separate potentially crippling empathy from professional concern. A doctor normally would not operate on a friend or family member, simply because she has personal feelings that could interfere with her surgical performance. But you may have to care for someone you are emotionally attached to. Once mastered, this distancing strategy will also make it easier for you to keep from becoming pessimistic in the face of setbacks and failures.
Get a Private Life
As a caregiver, much of your time necessarily will be devoted to your friend or loved one. It is easy to neglect yourself while caring for someone else. As difficult as it is, you will benefit by keeping a to-do list and a daily or weekly schedule that is for you alone.
Don't try to squeeze your life into the schedule you maintain for the person you care for. Keep your own schedule. Use it to make time for yourself. If necessary, ask someone else to sit in for you while you take a day, afternoon, or even a half hour off to do something for yourself.
Another way to reduce the risk of caregiver burnout is to keep or develop a social support network just for you. These can be friends, people who share a common interest in a hobby, coworkers, or other people in a caregiver support group.
Get Away If You Can
Taking a break takes insight, planning, and resources. You need insight to know when to escape from a situation that often imposes a steady level of stress. Insight helps you overcome feelings of guilt that some people feel when they confuse a well-deserved break with abandonment of their charge. The caregiver must be able to consciously give himself permission to withdraw for a short time.
Planning for your temporary absence requires time and effort. The replacement caregiver must be taught about medications, daily schedules, symptoms, and other information that will make the substitution work. Finally, the tired caregiver needs either money to hire help or the volunteer services of someone to take over his tasks for the length of the break.
Get a Healthy Life
Your health is as important as the health of the person you care for. It may take more conscious effort for you to achieve it because of your additional responsibilities, but it will be worth it. If you are healthy and strong, you will feel better, handle stress better, and be capable of giving better care. Get a yearly physical exam, exercise regularly, eat nutritious foods, and get enough rest and sleep.
Therapy is another option to consider. A good therapist can provide helpful insights and techniques for improving your ability to handle the challenges you face in your personal life, at your job, and in your role as a caregiver.
Take advantage of a family or psychoeducation program if you have access to one. This type of training improves the ability of people to cope with the stresses of caring for a person with schizophrenia. A good program will help you deal with both positive and negative symptoms.
Stress and relaxation are mutually exclusive. The body cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time. Any time you can find to relax — through exercise, yoga, meditation, or entertainment — will provide at least a temporary escape from stress. Discipline and a regular schedule of stress-reducing pastimes can help you stay relaxed for longer periods throughout the day, even while you deal with stressful tasks.
Ways to Reduce Stress
Get enough sleep
Get good nutrition
Find ways to laugh
Find ways to be entertained
Practice deep breathing or meditation
Adapted from Sharon L. Johnson's Therapist's Guide to Clinical Intervention.