SelfCare: 7 Things to Do When You're Stressed to Wit's End


Last updated: October 29, 2009
Hearty Tea Pot Set by MollaSpace
Image by MollaSpace used under the creative commons attribution no derivs license.

Caregiver stress has no shortage of causes. But sometimes you hit a tipping point: On top of everything else, you get the flu. You get into an argument with a sibling or an insurance company rep. Or there's a new diagnosis (on top of the two or three other chronic conditions you're helping a loved one manage). And there you are, seriously wondering if it's possible for a human head to explode.

Rest assured, it can't! Try these seven ways to buy yourself time to regain a little sanity:

1. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

"Keep breathing," a yoga therapist friend always urges me when I get to that mush-on-the-floor point. The slower and deeper the breaths, the better.

Tracy Gaudet, the physician who directs Duke Integrative Medicine, taught me a handy force-yourself-to-slow-down breathing pattern that she learned from her former mentor Andrew Weil:

4/7/8 Breathing (Paced Breathing)

  • Rest the tip of your tongue on the ridge behind your front teeth throughout the exercise.
  • Breathe in through your nose for a count of four.
  • Hold for a count of seven.
  • Exhale through the mouth for a count of eight. With your tongue in the same position as in step 1, you should hear a hoosh sound as the air goes out. Repeat at least four times (and as often as you like).

2. Decide not to decide.

"Should I do x or y?" When you're superstressed, even the simplest decisions can overwhelm you. Deciding might relieve some uncertainty, but sometimes you just can't get there right away. What's important is to know that's okay.

Better: Walk away from the decision. Put it off for today, if that's possible. Even if the decision feels urgent, you almost always have an hour to take a time out. Don't think about the pressing choice. Distract yourself, sit with yourself, do anything but dwell. Sometimes giving yourself the gift of a little distance is all the breathing room you needed.

3. Make yourself a cup of tea.

Okay, so this is my solution to all stressors, great and small. The great thing about tea "“ aside from that the fact that it's warm and soothing, has no calories, and delivers antioxidants (in white and green forms, especially) -- is that you have to sip it sloooowly. Taking things slowly is key when you're stressed. Better in a nice teacup. Best brewed with whole leaves in a lovely pot.

Don't like tea? Are you sure? There are so many choices! The Republic of Tea has a new Hot Apple Cider tea that's a healthy, sweet stand-in for the real thing. When I'm in the dumps, I'll wander to the tea aisle of the local grocery and treat myself to one picked solely on its promising flavor (Pumpkin Spice?) or intriguing name (Good Hope Vanilla?).

4. Reach out to all your Caring and Facebook Friends.

Whether you have 8 or 800 by now, put them to work for you. Ask them to send you one hug, one upbeat saying or funny joke, one reason you should keep breathing for another 24 hours.... That's what they're there for. And your Facebook Friends, especially, will be happier to do something productive -- like bucking you up -- than taking another dumb "What character on Dallas are you?" quiz.

5. Make a doctor appointment "“ for you.

You're probably the one hauling everybody else to the doctor all the time. When's the last time you went?

  • If you're sick, you need to do everything in your power to get better.
  • If you're simply stressed, then you're at risk for getting sick, and a check-up can assess that risk and maybe boost your commitment to self care. (You're also likely to get some specific pointers on that.)
  • If you're super-duper stressed, ask for a referral to a therapist. Every person in an intense caregiving role can benefit from that.

6. Get some fresh air.

Unless you're sick, nothing revives you more in less time than a change of scenery to the great outdoors. Could be a big walk in a scenic location or a shuffle in crunchy leaves around your backyard.

Being outside is a proven stress reliever. Exercise is a proven stress reliever. Shifting yourself to a fresh location is a proven stress reliever. Put them all together.

7. One word: Chocolate.

My fallback caregivers' stress solution is neither innovative nor medically sound. But hey, it works. Not every hour of every day, but when things are so dire you've been pushed to wit's end, you deserve a little chocolate. This is obviously what the dark chocolate Snickers bar has been invented for.

Since I don't recommend chocolate 24/7, however, for the rest of the day, there's chocolate in tea form: The Republic of Tea has a brand new chocolate line, including Coconut Coca Tea and Double Dark Chocolate Mate, which stands-in rather nicely for cocoa. Sip a cup while you're sitting outside and reading heartwarming replies on Facebook or Caring, right after you make a doctor appointment. And then maybe have a bite of Snickers.

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25 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

about 1 year ago

This is wonderful. Mostly because it shows us you are listening to our comments and focusing your topics on frequent problems we encounter. So, thank you for that. It helps so much to know someone is LISTENING and actually cares. The exercise tip may seem trite and generic by now, but really, grab your dog and go out for a LONG walk. Take a camera with you and look for the beauty that is out there. Capture it! I've done this and taken it to another level and made paintings from these pics. Creativity helps immeasurably. So, relax and chill out and I wish you all a peaceful and creative outlet to rejuvenate your stressful days.


about 1 year ago

Sunshine4You - Thank you for sharing your predicament. Couple of observations - As your mother gets older, and her Parkinsons (the shaking) gets worse, she will become more and more unkind and demanding. As we age, our habits get more intense. As your father tried to do more and more for his wife (your mother), he will wear himself out, and become grumpy himself - especially with his knee problem. My suggestion would be to get the 'helpful' sisters together, without parental knowledge or consent, and try to work out something that keeps your older sister from burning out, and feeling all alone in the caregiving (even though you have offered to help). While in the meeting keep any sort of history between you siblings out of the meeting. The meeting is about Mom/Dad and youngest sister. Each of you could be making meals for the freezer to feed Mom/Dad, so having only one take care of the meals is not such a burden. Since you have a grown son, maybe he could go over to his Grandparents house, and say I'm here for a few hours, what would you like me to help you with Grampa - may I mow the lawns, weed the garden, clean the gutters, etc.... Instead of saying you'll come over and help, just show up. Someone could offer to come over and vacuum the house, dust, clean ceiling light fixtures, clean the oven, clean the bathrooms. Just show up in working clothes and do it. Keep in mind that everyone has their particular way of doing things, and not all of us do things the same way. It's important to not focus on how things get done, but that the end product is reached (laundry's done, dinner's done, cleaning's done, etc.) After the first few times that you show up to 'work' for a few hours, they'll start having things lined up for someone to help with. Wish you all the best in your meeting with your sisters!


about 1 year ago

My mother is in need of caregiving and my father wants to be in charge of taking care of her. He has put his own health issues "on hold" until my mom gets better. Unfortunately my mother has whole body tremors throughout the day and night. I have 3 siblings: one who is single, never married and has no child to take care of. She lives about 30 minutes away from my parents and is their only source of help. I have 2 other sisters. One visits them and gives them helpful advice. She has a very busy schedule and has little time to give our dad a much needed break. Our youngest sister is mentally ill and currently resides in a mental health care facility and expects our father and our older sister to help her. Our dad agreed to be her conservator as if he needs any more responsibilities! She constantly phones both our dad and sister who are trying to care for our mom. I do live nearby and both my adult son and I have offered to give my dad a break so he can go out for a while but he does not accept our offers. He needs knee surgery badly but claims he will have that done when mom gets better. Even when I just drop by for a visit and ask what I can do to help, I get the same answer. It is frustrating because my dad has allowed his own health to suffer while my mom has not made any improvement in a year. She uses a walker to get around. She goes out of their home only for Dr. and physical therapy appointments with an occasional hair cut. My dad does all the driving, shopping, keeping the yards maintained (which is actually good therapy for him) and takes care of their finances. He is still in good shape mentally. The main reason our dad doesn't want to leave our mom with any of his 3 daughters who are able to give him a break is his fear of our mom falling (an often occurrence since she has allowed her leg muscles to become somewhat atrophied) and none of us would be able to help her stand up. She is also about 40 lbs overweight which makes it more difficult to help her when she falls. They aren't well off so hiring a caregiver outside of our family is not financially possible. Only 1 of their daughters can afford to help pay for a caregiver. There is also our Mother's attitude toward having "Strangers" come into their home to give our dad a break. It is unfair to rely only on our older sister to provide real care for our mom. She cooks them good meals, cleans up, helps with laundry, etc. I would be happy to make dinner with her And although I've also offered, she never accepts my help. And they Never invite me and my son to join them! We feel totally left out. My father is overwhelmed with all of his "duties" and is quite impatient and frustrated with our mom. We daughters also have noted the disrespectful way my mother talks to our dad. That is one of the worst parts of this true story. He does everything with her as his number 1 priority and she treats him very unkniny. She is argumentative and disagreeable. We know he is devoted to her and so does she! We are afraid that our dad may end up hospitalized! They won't listen to reason. I even phoned 3 very reputable caregiver agencies in our area to start a dialog with our parents and to make a plan so our dad can have the knee surgery he needs. He uses a cane to assist him and as his knee becomes more problematic he will need a walker himself. Then how is he going to be able to care for her and take care of our mentally ill younger sister? Our older sister has made it clear that she is unwilling to "change her life" to take care of them. I have suggested that we (our parents and their 3 helpful daughters) have a meeting and set up a schedule to help both of them. They refused. I'm at my wits end dealing with our parents! I am using your deep breathing suggestions. I'm not able to eat chocolate but I will start drinking some of the chocolate flavored teas. I exercise which helps to relieve stress, too. There is a peaceful, beautiful natural setting where I can take a walk and I'm going to make that a priority. I'm going to focus on caring for myself. When the time comes (& it will) that my parents really need my help, I will be in better health then. Thanks for your helpful suggestions!


about 1 year ago

I'm not very good at painting myself into a corner, if things seem bit of jumble or could appear so, pause for that breathing technique: concentrate on that to the exclusion of everything else, close your eyes if you like. Don't be surprised if some other idea comes to mind while you are at it. As the suggestions go, if there is that situation, doing something, anything, gets you a step or two away: such distance lends enchantment. Thanks too


about 1 year ago

As a massage therapist, I can say that even 15-30 minutes, maybe with aromatherapeutic oils, candles, or atmosphere can made a big difference. massage lowers blood pressure, changes the chemistry, improves immune system.


Anonymous said about 1 year ago

I am stressed too. My mom is at the end of her life and although I have three siblings, I am the one who is saddled with the duty. It gets old very quickly. I am in my third Year of this. I hate it so much and yet I know I have to do it. I haven't missed a day. I cry on the way home usually because no one can hear me then but my doggies. Sorry but it is excruciating at times. I want her to go on her way soon as this is ruining me and my marriage. My siblings are worthless.


about 1 year ago

Thanks for the help, really needed it today.


almost 2 years ago

This article couldn't have come at a better time. I have been feeling at my wits end for the past few weeks. I do drink tea, actually ate a chocolate bar last night. Thanks for reminding me I need to take care of myself. I am going to join a local womens exercise group, to exercise and relax, hopefully get my hair done. I totally forgot that if I burn out what will happen to my daughter and the kids. Thanks again.


almost 2 years ago

Unfortunately, I don't drink tea, so #3 is out.... Don't care for chocolate - if I drink or eat much of it, my fibromyalgia kicks up like you wouldn't believe. I try to take a walk for the fresh air, although I have had to make life-saving decisions for a loved one, where even just a short phone call would take too long. My current worry is that once my father is on his way to the other side, who is going to take care of me? I had no children, 2 of my 3 siblings have no children. The niece and nephew that I have are way too busy to think about their auntie......


almost 2 years ago

I'm kinda new to this caregiving thing. I'm learning everyday what works. I ask God to help me focus on one thing at a time. I have a trusted sister in law that helps a lot and just knowing that I can depend on her helps take some of the pressure off.


almost 2 years ago

I pray for anyone that comes into my mind. Everyone needs prayer. I thank God for everything! good and the stress is gone and there is peace. Full time caregiver is hard, every one needs a break. Family don't seem to understand this!


almost 2 years ago

Great ideas! How about get a massage or haircut or read something to escape for awhile.


almost 3 years ago

Mush on the floor....funny...oh how many times has that been the case:)


almost 3 years ago

#1 and #6. We need to take time to breathe...deeply. Why is it we forget to slow down and take deep breaths when the stresses of the world pile high upon our shoulders? Thanks for the reminder, Paula.


almost 3 years ago

I wondered if the human brain could explode .... Breathing technics were helpful Thanks,


almost 3 years ago

Practical, easy to implement Bravo & thanx


almost 3 years ago

Good, easy advice!


almost 3 years ago

Just thinking about doing a few of these today, e.g. tea, chocolate, fresh air, was helpful to me. Going to do them, and I know they will be REALLY helpful!


over 3 years ago

Thank u, this articles was very helpful!


over 3 years ago

. Decide not to decide. "Should I do x or y?" When you're superstressed, even the simplest decisions can overwhelm you. Deciding might relieve some uncertainty, but sometimes you just can't get there right away. What's important is to know that's okay. Better: Walk away from the decision. Put it off for today, if that's possible. Even if the decision feels urgent, you almost always have an hour to take a time out. Don't think about the pressing choice. Distract yourself, sit with yourself, do anything but dwell. Sometimes giving yourself the gift of a little distance is all the breathing room you needed.


over 4 years ago

you're always so helpful!!!


over 4 years ago

Thanks for the suggestions. I do the breathing, but even though I like tea, I had never thought of using that. I had an amazing stress reliever yesterday, something I would never have come up with. I went to a class for work. My bother was with my mom, but I ususally still worry. Well, for hours, I concentrated on what I needed to learn and realized that I hadn't had a stomach ache all day! It was work, but I was totally distracted and it made a huge difference in my day, and in how I slept last night, and how I feel today. Who'd a thunk it? :-)


over 4 years ago

Thank you while I sit hear and crey I will go have that cup of tea, and chocolate to


over 4 years ago

Great article Paula, Thanks for putting up these stress-relieving strategies. The cup of tea is definitely one that I indulge in on a regular basis. I do think that you left one off the list. If you want to buy yourself time to regain a little sanity. I would recommend actually buying a little time. Maybe take a week or two off of caregiving and hire an accredited caregiver for a week or two and just take a vacation from caregiving. Maybe that is a trip or just a long tea break, but stepping away often makes decisions more clear. For more information on in-home caregivers, check out this blog: www.rightathome.net/seniorhomecare. Best Wishes, Bill


over 4 years ago

Thank you for this important and helpful article. It's a shame that we all have to be reminded (and remind ourselves) that it's not only OK, but necessary, to take care of ourselves and to sometimes put ourselves first. No one thing works for everyone, but you offer a wonderful menu of choices. At www.activeseniorsintransition.com we have found that people in the "sandwich generation" who consider their own needs, have more to give to their children and aging parents.


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