Caregiving can be both physically and emotionally draining, especially when you’re witnessing the pain, loss and suffering of loved ones or patients. Add the long hours, balancing a career and family, and potentially low pay and administrative details, and you can see why compassion fatigue and burnout are so common among caregivers. Mindfulness, a practice to help you focus on the present moment, won’t eliminate the stress, but it will help you cope better and become more resilient. Author Joseph Goldstein defines mindfulness as “the quality and power of mind that is deeply aware of what’s happening—without commentary and interference. It’s a way of paying attention.”
This means taking a break from the worrying and multitasking so many of us are used to doing—something that takes up about 47 percent of our waking hours. Harvard psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert elaborated in The Harvard Gazette:
“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Mind your mind
Not to be confused with meditation, mindfulness can be especially effective to bring you back to the present and help you cope and reduce the stress you feel as a caregiver:
- By becoming more aware of your thoughts, you can step back from them and view them more calmly, as phenomena that come and go.
- You’re less likely to react to a situation, and will instead pause and reflect before you respond.
- You’re more aware of your own emotions, as well as of those around you.
- You’re better able to focus, which helps you be more efficient and make fewer errors.
- You’ll feel more compassion for yourself and others.
How to practice mindfulness
Whether you’re helping someone at home or in an institutional setting, try one of more of these six methods to practice mindfulness wherever you are:
The word “breathing” is shorthand for the vibrations, shifts and changes as air enters and exits our mouths. It’s the ultimate multitasking activity, because, as we go about our daily activities, we’re rarely observing our breath. But mindfulness invites you to do just that, as you sit, walk, bend, wash, serve or use the computer—to be more aware of your breathing in all its subtleties.
You may have heard of “deep” versus “shallow” breathing. But mindfulness is not about “fixing” your breathing. Instead, it’s about simply observing it. When you’re feeling tense, just noticing a couple of inhalations and exhalations can help you calm down. Author Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote about the power of breath in his 2005 bestseller, “Wherever You Go, There You Are”:
“Breath provides an anchor line to tether you to the present moment and to guide you back when your mind wanders.”.
Wherever you’re walking, notice your feet. What shoes are you wearing? Can you feel your feet within the shoes? Can you isolate the different segments of your foot – heel arch, toes – as they meet the ground?
Also notice the surface your feet are touching—carpet, wooden floor, tile or linoleum. If you’re outside, it could be asphalt, concrete, brick, tile, grass, dirt or sand.
3. Crossing a threshold
Most of us spend our days leaving one room and entering another. Become aware of these transitions. If you’re working in an assisted living facility, for example, try pausing for a few seconds before entering and taking a couple of breaths as you turn the resident’s doorknob. Check in with yourself. What are you thinking about? What physical sensations and emotions are present? This process of centering yourself helps to identify issues before they escalate. It also might remind you to see the individual in the room not just as a resident but as a complex human being.
Whether you’re dusting, mopping the floor, serving food, or helping a resident shower, notice all the ingredients and sensations involved. For example, if you’re washing dishes, notice the sound of the water, the warmth of the water, the texture of the sponge, and the dirt disappearing from the dish.
5. Savoring your time in the bathroom
It doesn’t matter where you are – a private home, a hospital or a skilled nursing facility – the restroom can be a mindfulness sanctuary. Because it may be the only place in the building where you can be alone, take advantage of that solitude and silence!
Sit quietly on the toilet or stand against a wall. Stretch your arms up a wall. Splash water on your face or brush your teeth. Even simply washing your hands during the day can be an opportunity to relax, enjoy the warm water and soap on your hands, and bring you back to the present.
6. Doing a task you find unpleasant
Caregiving often includes a seemingly endless variety of tasks, some pleasant, some unpleasant. You may, for example, have an aversion to helping your elderly father get dressed. Not only is the process awkward, but he’s a modest man, and you know he doesn’t like being seen in his underwear.
The next time you dress him, try focusing on all the separate sensations: your breathing; his sighs; the movement of different muscles; the smell of his freshly washed undershirt; the way you pull his pants up, bit by bit; helping him to stand up; the texture of his shirt, and so on. Simply notice the movements instead of wishing you were doing something else.
Live with friendly, affectionate curiosity
At its heart, mindfulness is about exploring your inner and outer world with openness and curiosity – not just neutrally, but in a friendly and affectionate way. As a caregiver, this kind of approach will help both your personal and professional life be less stressful and calmer.