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Self-care for Caregivers

Whether you’re caring for an elderly parent, your children, or work in healthcare, self-care should be a top priority. In reality, there are many barriers stopping caregivers from looking after themselves, making it much more likely that they’ll experience burnout.

Over the past year, caregivers and nurses have really felt the pressure and have been under enormous stress. All of the uncertainty, paired with attending to other people’s needs, has likely taken a toll on your mental, emotional, and physical health.

But you should also be proud – you’ve shown serious perseverance, dedication, and the utmost care for those around you. The world is truly grateful for anyone who has had a small part to play in the fight against COVID-19, but now it’s time for these people to think about themselves and their own needs.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Nursing Association have announced they will be extending their Year of the Nurse into 2021 and will celebrate the frontline heroes. And you should celebrate yourself, too, by taking a look at these self-care tips.

What actually is self-care?

The phrase ‘self-care’ has become increasingly popular over the past few years, and for good reason. As the world works to remove the stigma of mental illness, there has been a strong focus on the importance of self-care.

The term basically means ensuring your needs are being met in terms of physical, emotional, intellectual, social needs, and spirituality.

WHO reports that self-care is maintaining health and preventing illness by working on personal hygiene, nutrition, diet, and overall lifestyle. It may also incorporate managing environmental and socioeconomic factors or self-medication.

Everyone should be practicing self-care, but it is particularly important for those that provide care to others. Nurses, social workers, and other caregivers are prone to working long hours, stretching themselves too thin, and ultimately, experiencing burnout.

What is burnout?

When working in care or nursing, there is always the risk of hitting the metaphoric wall and experiencing burnout. Nursing is incredibly rewarding but undoubtedly one of the most demanding roles you can choose.

The work is mentally and physically taxing, meaning it can take a severe toll on the body and mind. Burnout can be a serious repetitive issue for those in high-demand roles, and the potential to experience it can drive people away from these professions entirely.

Burnout is essentially when stress becomes chronic. With the pandemic, nurses, clinicians, and nurse practitioners have all experienced an increase in burnout symptoms with very little chance to relax or recharge.

Burnout can easily cause anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as physical symptoms. The immune system is often compromised, making it much easier for burnout sufferers to develop other illnesses too.

Physical symptoms of burnout can include muscle tension, insomnia (which is hardly helpful with all the stress), and headaches.

If you’re experiencing any kind of fatigue, you’re overdue a little self-care.

Physical self-care

As mentioned above, self-care includes both physical and mental health. With long durations on your feet, unsocial shift patterns, and the strain from restraining or supporting patients, caregivers can certainly suffer from aches, pains, and physical illness.

The work of nurses and nurse practitioners is exhausting. Thankfully, even with a tiny amount of time available, there are still plenty of ways you can treat your body and boost your health.

The first is to make sure you’re drinking plenty of water – both on and off shift. The body functions much better when fully hydrated and will recover and repair itself much quicker.

As easy as it is to live off coffee and ready meals, maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet can also do wonders for your physical health.

You should also prioritize rest and sleep. You may need to depend on your support network if you have a busy family life so that you can pass the kids onto someone while you focus on getting some well-deserved rest. That might be a quick power nap or treating yourself to a massage.

Although you’ll be doing plenty of standing and running around at work, getting some gentle exercise in your downtime can also help keep muscles healthy and your fitness at peak level.

Self-care for your mental health

Caregivers are all about prioritizing other people. But wouldn’t it be nice if we treated ourselves with the same kindness that we do others?

The American Nurses Association (ANA) reports that a massive 70% of nurses prioritize their patient’s health, wellness, and safety above their own.

It’s time to change that.

Even if it’s just for a little time.

Mental health is just as important as the physical, which is why self-care is so integral for keeping your mind happy and healthy. With a healthy mind, you’re more capable of managing the difficult tasks at work, as well as life’s other challenges.

So, what can be done to prioritize your mental health?

Doing things you actually enjoy can go a lot further than you think in terms of maintaining good mental health. While day-to-day tasks like cooking, laundry, and cleaning can take over, it’s important that you incorporate things you enjoy into every day.

If you have a hobby, dedicate time each week to enjoy it. Alternatively, if you’re not sure about what you’re interested in doing in your free time, it’s time to get exploring your options. Try a different activity each week and see what you like.

Socializing is another good way to prioritize your own mental health and may give you the space to speak to other people about how you’re feeling. Socializing will likely end in laughter and light-hearted fun, which can help to release happy hormones in the brain.

As for those busy weeks where you barely have 15 minutes to yourself, you could practice breathing exercises or meditation. There are now plenty of free meditation apps for your phone, and doing a session before bedtime could help you relax and clear the brain fog.

When things get really tough, you might also want to consult a therapist. Having this time dedicated to speaking about how you feel rather than having to focus on other people’s feelings can really help.

Self-care for spirituality

When you’re feeling your best, you can give your best out to the world.

Mindfulness is a common tool used to boost mental health, but it can also help you to reconnect and recharge spiritually.

If you’re religious, incorporating prayer into your work schedule can help you feel a little more balanced.

Spirituality doesn’t have to be religious, though. It can be as simple as practicing gratitude and acknowledging positive aspects of life. This simple activity – which can easily be done just before bed – helps people feel more optimistic and capable of managing adversity. It can also help you nurture the relationships around you.

Think about the future

Caregivers have very little time to seriously think about what they want and where they see themselves in the future. But it’s time all that changed.

Rather than just focusing on getting through each day, what do you want to do with your future?

Burnout can make people seriously rethink their career in healthcare. The pandemic has led to a lot of nurses looking to work in less hands-on positions, while others have found themselves drawn back to working on the ward.

With all this change, it’s definitely time to think about your future and, where you can, invest in it.

That might be getting a new qualification, finally focusing on that specialism you’ve always wanted to explore, or training to be a nurse practitioner.

With a plan in place, it’s easy to see your purpose and progression.

There are plenty of online nursing courses available, which means you can balance your studying around your current working schedule, too.

Focus on some ‘me time’

To prevent perpetual exhaustion, you’ll need to get serious about practicing self-care. One way to do this is to dedicate some time specifically for ‘me time’.

Speak to your partner or family about sharing the childcare and work to set boundaries between your work and home life. That way, when you do arrive home after a shift, you can focus solely on other things in life. 

Romantic dates or friend meet-ups should be booked into the diary so you have something to look forward to, even on the darkest of days.

If you really can’t stay away from caring for others, me time could even involve volunteering – just try to make it non-nursing-related.

Remember you’re not alone

Connecting with others – other nurses, friends, and family – is integral. As humans, we all need a little social and emotional interaction, and you deserve as much care as you give out. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out to another colleague to share your frustrations, stress, or anxiety and support one another.

Taking time to look after yourself can feel a little selfish. After all, that time could be spent looking after someone else! However, without personal care, you’ll struggle to offer anything to others and could find yourself seriously ill. Start taking the time to practice self-care – however small it may be – and see how much better you feel.

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