Caregiving can be incredibly stressful. In fact, seventy percent of caregivers over the age of seventy die before the individual they are caring for. Recent research has found that chronic stress is a major culprit in heart attacks and stroke. It is easy to draw a line between caregiving, chronic stress, and a bad health outcome for the caregiver.
So let’s look at how we can manage or change that outcome.
Introducing the Amygdala
First of all, let me introduce you to a part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is a small almond shaped part of our brain deep within the brain structure. It regulates or responds to danger and is responsible for our ‘flight or fight’ response. When the brain is stressed or senses danger, the amygdala is active.
Previous research has shown that stress is a risk factor for heart attacks. Recent research, published online in Lancet, draws a direct line from increased amygdala activity to heart attacks and/or strokes.
The study shows that an increase in amygdala activity has an impact on bone-marrow activity. The increase in bone-marrow activity leads to increased inflammation in the arteries. Increased inflammation in the arteries leads to an increase in cardiovascular disease.
This study shows the progression and effect of chronic stress on the body. It is important to monitor stress levels and find ways to reduce stress.
Caregiver Stress Test
If you are a caregiver of an individual with dementia, you will be under stress. It is important to measure your stress levels and act to reduce stress.
One easy way to measure stress levels is the Caregiver Stress Test found in the Enable Caregiver Program. This Caregiver Stress Test looks at the three main areas of stress for a family caregiver.
One area of stress that can impact an individual is feeling overwhelmed, over worked, or over burdened by caregiving. It is important to recognize that these feelings are subjective in nature — so they will vary from person to person.
Individuals who are caregivers may also feel trapped or confined by the responsibilities or demands of caregiving.
There may be conflict among family members over care decisions. Financial difficulties may also add to the burden of caregiving.
It is important to act if you (or someone you know) feels like this over caregiving issues.
Ten Ways to Reduce Stress
There are simple things that you can do to reduce stress.
- Breathe Deeply — deep breathing can reduce heart rate and blood pressure. Take a few minutes each day (or when you are feeling particularly stressed) to breathe deeply.
Action: Breathe deeply through your nose if possible with mouth closed. Place your hands on your belly and breathe out to a five count and in to a five count. The belly should expand on inhale and flatten on exhale. Repeat 5 times.
- Meditate or Pray — prayer or meditation has been shown to reduce stress. Take a few minutes each day to spend time in meditation or prayer.
Action: Sit in a quiet place and quiet your mind. To pray, engage in a conversation with God and share your concerns and problems. Listen to the response. Feel loved.
- Reach Out — your social networks will have a big impact on stress reduction. Reach out to friends and family members to relax and have fun.
Action: Meet a friend for coffee or cards. Face-to-face interactions have a greater impact on our mental health than phone calls do, so make sure you are seeing other people.
- Laughter — laugh aloud and laugh often. Research shows that our brain can’t tell whether our laughter is real or fake, so even if you don’t want to laugh try it. Laughter boosts your immune system. Interestingly, the average five year old laughs 30 — 40 times per day; while the average adult laughs 30 — 40 times per year.
Action: Watch a funny movie or read a book that makes you laugh. If you are looking for something a bit different, you can find a laughter yoga class.
- Music — listening to music, particularly classical music, can help relieve stress.
Action: Put on your favourite music and move to it. You can pretend to conduct the orchestra if it is classical music or sing your heart out if it is a song with words.
- Exercise — aerobic exercise like walking, dancing or swimming is very good for reducing stress.
Action: Plan to exercise for thirty minutes everyday. As you increase your stamina, increase the amount of time you are exercising. Ideally you should be aiming for 60 minutes.
- An Attitude of Gratitude — being grateful for the blessings in your life can have a significant impact on stress. Research shows that individuals with a grateful heart and a positive attitude have increased longevity.
Action: Keep a gratitude journal. Make a list each day of the things you are grateful for. If you find yourself slipping into negative thought patterns, read your gratitude journal.
- Sleep Well — being sleep deprived can have a negative impact on brain health and stress levels. The sleep hormone, melatonin, is an antioxidant and an inhibitor of cancer cell growth. You need to get a good night’s sleep to take advantage of your body’s healing properties.
Action: Make sure you are sleeping in a dark room. Exposure to light before bed (from a television, tablet, or smart phone) can reduce the quality of your sleep. Spend the time before bed reading not watching television. For more tips on sleeping well, we have a sleep hygiene checklist in our Enable Program.
- Relax Your Muscles — muscle tension can build during the day. Take some time to stretch out your muscles to reduce muscle tightness.
Action: Lie on your back and breathe deeply five times. Starting at your head and working down towards your feet contract a muscle tightly, hold it for 5-10 seconds and then release. Work through your entire body and at the end you will feel totally relaxed.
- Take a Hot Bath — taking a hot bath or using a hot water bottle can help stimulate blood flow and reduce tension and stress. Having a hot bath before bed will raise body temperature and when you get out of the bath, the drop in body temperature will help prepare the body for sleep.
Action: Take a bath with Epsom salts. Epsom salts relax muscles and provide a source of magnesium, which is an essential brain health nutrient.
It is important to manage stress. Individuals who are caregiving are by default in a stressful situation. It is difficult to watch your loved one suffer and the demands of caregiving can deplete your physical and emotional resources. Pay attention to how you feel. Your feelings are an indicator of your stress levels.
Chronic stress can set you up for a heart attack or stroke and reduce or remove your ability to be a caregiver for your loved one. Caring for yourself is caring for your loved one. It helps you continue to care.
- 1Read about the Four Stages of Caregiving
- 2Are You a Caregiver or Know One? Get the Enable Caregiver Course
- 3Register to get free health eBooks and content. (click here)
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.