We are facing really challenging times and at these moments I draw inspiration from individuals who faced great challenges with fortitude. One individual who I greatly admire is Viktor Frankl. He survived the Holocaust and wrote a great book – “Man’s Search for Meaning”. The quote noted above comes from that book.
Dr. Frankl faced stress of an unimaginable type. But chronic stress can also have an impact on our overall health. During this time of pandemic we are living in a time of chronic stress. Research shows that chronic stress can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Quite literally, stress can kill you.
Layer on top of that the fact that 70% of caregivers over 70 die before the individual they are caring for. This leads to the conclusion that caregiver stress is a negative factor in the lives of caregivers.
So whether or not you are in a direct caring role right now – reducing stress is important.
Ten Ways to Reduce Stress
There are simple things that you can do to reduce stress. Try and implement at least one of these stress reducers into your daily routine.
1. Breathe Deeply
Deep breathing reduces heart rate and blood pressure.It forces you to slow down and produces a calming effect. Take a few minutes each day, or when you are feeling particularly stressed to breath deeply.
Taking Action: Sit upright on the edge of a chair. Breathe deeply through your nose with your mouth closed. Place your hands on your belly and breathe out to a five count and in to a five count. Really work at expelling all the air in your lungs. Work at having you belly expand on inhale and flatten on exhale. Try and get deep into your lungs with your breathing. Repeat 5 times.
2. Meditate or Pray
Research shows that prayer or meditation reduces stress. Being able to take your problems, concerns and frustrations to a God who loves you, goes a long way to relieving the caregiver burden. The action of prayer or meditation also helps to strengthen the frontal cortex of the brain. This area responsible for executive functioning gives clarity of thought for decision-making. It can also support efforts to remain calm and loving.
Taking 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.
3. Reach Out
Research shows that your social networks will have a big impact on stress reduction. During the pandemic we have seen the cost of social isolation in sky-rocketing rates of depression and increased anxiety.
Face-to-face interaction with other human beings has a huge impact on rates of depression. It is important to cultivate and maintain relationships with family and friends. When you are caring for someone, it is very easy to become so focused on care-giving that outside relationships slide. This can have long term negative consequences on your health. Reach out to friends and family members to relax and have fun. [Read more about Healthy Social Networks]
Taking Action: Meet a friend for coffee or a walk. Remember face-to-face interactions have a greater impact on your mental health than phone calls do, so make sure you are seeing other people even if it is at a distance.
Laughter really is the best medicine so 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 have anything funny happening you can still benefit from laughter.. 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. So we can all improve our laughter quotient.
Taking 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 has a way of moving us that other experiences just cannot match. The music loop in our brain is deep. Many individuals with dementia can be reached by music where other means fail. Music will affect you so choose to listen to music that moves and uplifts you. Listening to classical music in particular can have a positive effect and relieve stress.
Taking 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. Choose music that is positive and uplifting.
Exercise has a positive effect on both brain and body. Aerobic exercise if sufficiently strenuous, can increase the serotonin and dopamine output into the brain. Serotonin protects against depression and dopamine improves mood and long term memory. Blood pressure can also be positively affected by exercise. Aerobic exercise like walking, dancing or swimming is very good for reducing stress.
Taking Action: Check your exercise plan with your doctor. If you are healthy, 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 of activity that gets your heart pumping. [Read about how dancing can improve brain health]
7. An Attitude of Gratitude
Research shows that having a positive attitude improves longevity. Some individuals see the world as a glass half full while others see it as half empty. We all have a natural tendency to one view or the other but we can change our natural reactions. One way to improve your attitude is to foster an attitude of gratitude. Being grateful for the blessings in your life can reduce stress.
Taking 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.
8. Sleep Well
Being sleep deprived can have a negative impact on brain health and stress levels. Our bodies produce melatonin as an important regulator of the sleep-wake cycle. 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.
Taking 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.
9. Relax Your Muscles
If you are anything like me, you carry stress in your neck and back. In stressful situations, I find myself tightening up. Stress can build muscle tension during the day. Take some time to stretch out your muscles to reduce muscle tightness. This will also improve blood flow and reduce stress. As a competitive athlete we used a muscle relaxing technique to help us reduce stress before competing. This technique can also help your reduce stress so that you can fall asleep at night.
Taking 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.
10. Take a Hot Bath
Applying heat to a muscle can reduce tension. If you are generally feeling overwhelmed, 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.
Taking Action: Add Epsom salts to your bath. Epsom salts relax muscles and provide a source of magnesium, which is an essential brain health nutrient. [Read more about brain nutrients]
Care-giving is by default a stressful situation. It is difficult to watch someone you love suffer. You can be overwhelmed with worry and the physical demands of care-giving. This can deplete your physical and emotional resources. Layer on top of that the pandemic and everything that goes with it and times are particularly challenging.
Pay attention to how you feel. Your feelings are an indicator of your stress levels. Chronic stress can lead to a heart attack or stroke. This will reduce or remove your ability to be a caregiver for your loved one. Caring for yourself is caring for your loved one. You are ensuring that you are still there to care.