Caring Currents

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

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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.

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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 whoosh 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's appointment for yourself.

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.

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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.