Self Caring

Step One: Find the "I" in Caring

Last updated: Mar 22, 2010

A man of many languages
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First steps don't have to be big to get you somewhere. That was my big "bingo" moment while listening to stress expert Eva Selhub, the senior physician at the Benson/Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of The Love Response. (What she dubs the "love response" is the antidote to the body's well-known "stress response," a stress buffer that's created by self love, social love, and spiritual love.)

Every caregiver has heard about the "attach your oxygen mask first" message about the importance of self care. Well how many of you then thought, Yeah, right? We all want to lower our risk of heart disease, depression, hostility, obesity, and all the other glum scenarios (premature death!) that too often befall those who care of someone who's ill, frail, or disabled. Putting our good intentions into action is another matter.

Selhub makes it simple. She boils down the caregiver's dilemma to asking yourself one question:

What do I need in order to give?

Notice there's an "I" in that sentence "“- right along with the word "giving." Both are important. "In order to know what you need, you have to pay attention to your body's signals, to the thoughts in your head, and the longings in your heart," Selhub says. "You can't know what you want or need if you are so busy taking care of others that you're ignoring yourself."

Giving without receiving, she says, is the recipe for burnout.

The very first step to caregiver self care, then, is simply to be aware. You don't even have to answer the question, not yet. First, just recognize the validity of looking in the mirror (or into your soul) and asking, What do I need in order to give?

Small step. Right direction.

In future posts I'll be exploring ways to figure out the answer (which is, for most of us, more accurately a zillion answers). Better yet, I'll offer up ways to put the answers into action "“ especially when you feel you lack courage, time, money, or support. I'll talk to other caregivers about what hurts, what works, and why. I'll look at new studies on caring and healing through the lens of the caregiver's experience. (I call it the "but what does that mean for me" perspective.) I'll point out companies and corporate policies that are helping "“ or hindering. And I'll pitch common caring complaints to experts in stress, time management, wellness, and other disciplines, mining for nuggets that go beyond those "yeah, right" clichés like "have a long, hot bath" and "don't forget to take a vacation!"

Every other person around me seems to be in caregiver mode, and I've been there myself: Both parents and a grandmother; cancers, dementias, stroke, broken bones; in the hospital, at home, in a nursing home, in rehab, in hospice. I know from all our stories that there are wonderful moments to this odd life stage "“ but also that sometimes there aren't good solutions to the stress marks on our psyches, aside from venting and eating chocolate.

I'm on a mission to keep the "I" in caring capitalized.