Care for the Caregiver

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By Melanie Trivette

Consider for a moment the number of caregivers in your life. You may first think about professionals: doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors, teachers or hospice workers. You may also see a friend, neighbor, or parent who provides emotional and/or physical support to a relative or person in the community. You yourself may be one, tending to a sick child or elderly parent. The role of a caregiver is not an easy one, yet compassion is a natural response to seeing others suffer. Often the stress of helping or wanting to help can become overwhelming, resulting in ‘compassion fatigue.’

Compassion fatigue is “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper (1).” Not to be confused with burnout, which encompasses general occupational stress, compassion fatigue can present symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to indirect exposure to traumatic events (2). These symptoms include, but are not limited to hopelessness, guilt, social withdrawal, and diminished self-care that can lead to negative habits or consequences for the caregiver.

Many caregivers experience compassion fatigue, and letting it persist can have detrimental and debilitating effects on one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual state. Recognizing early signs and symptoms is the first step in managing it. You may already know that you have compassion fatigue, or you may need help assessing your situation. There are online resources available to help you determine your risk, such as this self-test quiz from Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (CFAP). If you, or someone you know is experiencing or exhibiting signs of compassion fatigue, please consider talking to a licensed professional and trying some of our recommendations below.

Self-Care
One of the first steps toward healing from compassion fatigue is a renewed dedication to self-care. Identifying nurturing, joy-filled practices that help to ‘recharge your batteries,’ and incorporating them into your daily life can have a profound effect in minimizing symptoms of compassion fatigue. Such practices may include exercise, eating well, journaling, dancing, being in nature, meditation and achieving restful sleep. Consider getting an accountability buddy. Often it is easy to say we are going to incorporate self-care into our routine, but it can be the last item on the list, getting less attention than it deserves. Enlisting a friend or colleague as an accountability buddy can be a fun way to approach this new commitment to your well-being (2).

Connect With Others
Compassion fatigue can feel isolating, often presenting as social withdrawal. Seeking healthy relationships that provide the platform for connection and conversation can go a long way to reducing feelings of separateness. Talking about compassion fatigue with a licensed professional, co-worker, and/or support group are also great options. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue in your job, the chances are high that other people in your workplace and community are as well. Gather your resources, such as workplace bulletin boards or support group listings. Try this web site: CompassionFatigue.org

Respect Personal Boundaries
Defining healthy personal boundaries is an additional mechanism for managing compassion fatigue. Maintaining boundaries that promote a healthy work-life balance and checking in with those boundaries on a continual basis can be eye-opening and empowering. Those who do not help themselves first, are in no position to help others. See your personal boundary commitments as instrumental in supporting your role as a caregiver.

When you think about it, do you feel you know what real, healthy boundaries look like? Try these 10 tips from Psych Central to get you on track.

Discover Self-Regulation
Self-regulation may be a concept that you promote to family members, clients, students, and/or patients, but perhaps it is lacking in your own life. Identify methods of self-regulation that suit your lifestyle, such as meditation, breathwork practice, or yoga (3). Incorporate these tools during times of high stress to foster relaxation and build resiliency. See our article on 5 Tips to Be Here Now for simple ways to practice calming yourself.

An important thing to know is that compassion fatigue is a normal experience for many caregivers. Mother Teresa is known to have made it mandatory that her nuns take a year off from their duties every 4-5 years to allow them to heal from the effects of caregiving (4). You can heal from it too. Organizations such as CFAP have made it their mission to help caregivers recognize and manage their symptoms. Included here is a list of resources for those seeking help and support with compassion fatigue:

This blog post was co-authored by Melanie Trivette, Anna Ferguson, and Becca Odom. For more information about the authors, click here.

Please note that these suggestions and tips are based on our opinions, and should not be considered medical advice. If you are seeking to treat a traumatic experience, please consult a licensed mental health professional before engaging in these tips. You can find a practitioner in your area at the National Association of Social Workers web site: www.helpstartshere.org

References:
1. “Did You Know?” Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
2. “Secondary Traumatic Stress.” Secondary Traumatic Stress. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
3. Gentry, J. Eric. COMPASSION FATIGUE PREVENTION & RESILIENCY (n.d.): n. pag. Georgia Hospital Association. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.
4. Hopkins, Debra. “August 1934.” Burnout & Compassion Fatigue (2013): n. pag. My Viewpoint Health. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.

5 Practical Tips to Be Here Now: Decreasing Dissociation

Be Here Now. You may have seen those words on a bumper sticker, heard them in a yoga or meditation class, or even picked up the book of that name by Ram Das. How have these three words, intentionally placed beside another become so mainstream? Perhaps it is because, in today’s society of multi-tasking, the words “be here now” remind us that the present moment is a gift. A gift that when consciously acknowledged has the potential to offer clarity, peace, grounding and perspective.

Anxiety about the future or worry about the past may rob you of the ability to thrive in the present moment. It also may hinder you from understanding the concept of being in one place at one time. In traumatic experiences and memories, there is another form of disconnection from the awareness of here and now, called dissociation. Dissociation is ‘a coping mechanism used to create distance from emotions, cognitions, or somatic symptoms, (1)’ and often causes a separation between one’s physical self, the external environment and cues of danger. In this blog post, we offer five practical tips to decrease dissociation and increase connection to the present moment.

IMG_16745. Find your Feet

One of the key factors of dissociation is the feeling of separateness from the body. By intentionally focusing the mind on the physical aspect of grounding, you can increase present-moment awareness and potentially increase the feeling of being safe and supported. (1)

Our Tip: For this exercise, you may have your eyes open or closed, and you may be standing or seated with feet on the ground. It can be really helpful to do this practice without shoes or socks on, so that you can feel more sensations in your feet.

Bring your awareness to your feet. Wiggle your toes. Feel your feet on the ground, firmly planted. Notice any differences between the right and left foot. Shift your weight from side to side. Often swaying or rocking can have a calming effect on the nervous system, which can also help to increase a sense of awareness and focus in the present moment. Try to then place equal weight into both feet. Wiggle your toes. Connect to the ground beneath your feet, understanding that you are supported by the earth and by your physical body. Notice textures or colors, whether you are standing inside or outside, the temperature of the ground or air around your feet. Notice as many interesting details as you can about the world around your feet.

4. Orienting Practice

We all have orienting mechanisms within our bodies and minds. These mechanisms are what tell us where our bodies are in relation to space. Often times we are using these mechanisms in a Fight-Flight-Freeze response to stress. For example, if we are in the woods and there is a mountain lion, these are the mechanisms we would use to tell ourselves where we are in relation to that mountain lion. The more we can strengthen these mechanisms in a calm state, the more we can increase our ability to access them in a time of need and therefore begin to increase the body-mind connection more effectively. (2)

Our Tip: Here is an orienting exercise you can practice to increase your body’s awareness of where it is located in space, in a calm state. Any time you feel like you want to “check out” or are getting scared or triggered, feel free to practice this skill to help orient yourself to the present moment and self-regulate when needed.  

Calming Forward Folds: Start in a position where you feel comfortable. You can be sitting, standing, or lying down. As you inhale, place your hands at the top of your thighs, then run your hands down your legs (front or back) as you exhale. Inhale, slide the hands back up the legs. Repeat as many times as you like. Notice the sounds, sensations, etc. of this movement. Bring as many of your senses into this practice that feel comfortable and supportive.

3. Breathing Practice

Breathing is essential to life, yet we often go through our day unaware of our breath. The only time we typically become conscious of our breath is when it is shallow or small, or when there is an increase of demand for it. Certain breathwork, or pranayama practices, are specifically helpful in creating a calming experience in the mind, and a grounding presence in the body. Focusing on our breath is an excellent way to “be here now,’” because the breath is the one companion we have with us from the moment we come into this world until our last. (4)

Our Tip: If at any time you feel anxiety during this practice, return to your normal breathing.

First, begin to notice your breath. Try not to change anything about it. Just notice. Are your breaths shallow, or are they deep? Do you breathe through your mouth or through your nose? After several moments of observation, consider closing your mouth (if it was open), and breathe solely through your nose. Does it feel easier or more difficult? If you choose, continue nasal breathing, and noticing the qualities of your breath (1).

Another way to start a breathing practice is to notice belly or chest breathing. As you breath in and out, does your chest or belly move? Do they both move? If most of your breath is in your chest, try shifting it to your belly. With chest breathing there is less capacity for air in the lungs so when we can breathe in our bellies we can get a fuller, deeper breath.

General principles of breathwork state that extending the exhale can have a calming effect on the nervous system, while extending (or lengthening) the inhales can have an energizing effect on the body. Since there is never a ‘one size fits all’ answer, we encourage you to experiment with these practices to see what works best for your mind-body connection.

2. Yoga Practice

The practice of yoga has a way of helping us feel our bodies in the present moment. The body can give us real-time feedback about what is needed and appropriate at any given time. There are several poses that specifically aid in grounding and connecting, thus decreasing the feelings of dissociation.

Our Tip: There are many different styles of yoga that can be practiced to help ground and regulate in the present moment. Here are a few principles of Yoga for Trauma practices that can be a helpful place to start when learning new poses to increase awareness skills and decrease dissociation: (4)

  • Use repetitive, rhythmic movements along with mindful breathing practices to help regulate the nervous system.
  • Practice movements that involve coordinating opposite parts of the body in specific sequences to increase neuroplasticity.
  • Move mindfully into and out of each pose – transitions are key to pain-free yoga.
  • Using breath as a check-in for pain management/triggers/symptoms/etc. Ask yourself, ‘What is my breath doing in each pose? How can my breath be a tool to keep me in the present moment with my physical/mental/emotional experiences?”

IMG_14971. Practice Yoga Brain Games

Throughout our lifetime, our brains become accustomed to what we do and how we do it. Often, many of the things that we do on a daily basis, seem to be performed automatically, and without our conscious effort. Challenging our brain with exercises that are different from our normal routine not only builds new neural pathways in the brain, it also aids in bringing the present moment into our awareness. There are several types of brain games, ranging from crossword puzzles, to using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, or driving home a different way. (3) We have created a few Yoga Brain Games you can try as well.

Our Tip: Tip Tap Fingers (4): Begin to tap the tips of each finger with your thumbs, in no particular order. Then start with your right thumb on your right index finger and your left thumb on your left little finger. Begin to tap each fingertip until you end up with the right thumb on right little finger and left thumb on left index finger. Repeat this tapping back and forth several times. Practice with eyes closed, or try walking, talking or counting while doing the exercise to increase the mental challenge.

This blog post was co-authored by Melanie Trivette, Anna Ferguson, and Becca Odom. For more information about the authors, click here.

Please note that these suggestions and tips are based on our opinions, and should not be considered medical advice. If you are seeking to treat a traumatic experience, please consult a licensed mental health professional before engaging in these tips. You can find a practitioner in your area at the National Association of Social Workers web site: www.helpstartshere.org

References:

  1. Emerson, David, and Hopper, Elizabeth. Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2011. Print.
  2. Walker, Julian. Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind: A Modern Yoga Philosophy Infused with Somatic Psychology & Neuroscience. N.p.: n.p., 2013. Print.
  3. Beck, Melinda. “‘Neurobics’ and Other Brain Boosters.” WSJ. The Wall Street Journal, 3 June 2008. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.
  4. Odom, Becca and Ferguson, Anna Yoga for Trauma Manual. Asheville, NC, 2014. Print

5 Ways to Practice Compassion

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Photo by Tucker Wilson

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”– Albert Einstein

What wise words from a man of genius, to free oneself by offering compassion to others, to creatures, and to the natural world. So what exactly is compassion, and how can you feel the effects of freedom in your own life by practicing it?

Compassion can be defined as the conscious recognition and acknowledgement of another sentient being’s ability to feel pain, joy, love, sadness, grief, happiness or any other emotion or experience. (1) Being in tune with another’s emotional experience can broaden our awareness of the world around us, and lead to greater harmony in our lives and the lives of others. Keep reading to discover our five suggestions of ways to practice compassion in your daily life.

5. Perform a Random Act of Kindness

Performing kind and thoughtful acts that aren’t expected can have an exponential and contagious effect in alleviating suffering and brightening someone’s day. In fact, studies show that not only the people directly receiving a random act of kindness benefit, but that people observing a random act of kindness also benefit. A 2010 news article from UC San Diego reports on the study, “When people benefit from kindness they ‘pay it forward’ by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network.” (2)

Put it in Practice:  At least once a day, practice compassion by extending a random act of kindness. Try allowing someone with a child in tow ahead of you in the grocery line, smiling at a stranger, giving a compliment to someone you don’t know, or holding the door open for another.

4. Volunteer

Dedicating unpaid time and talent to a worthy organization or cause that is doing great work can not only broaden your horizons, it can also help to ease the burden that many nonprofits face, a lack of human resources.

Put it in Practice: Volunteer based on criteria. Think of a cause that’s near and dear to your heart as well as your current availability and location. Consider how interesting a project sounds or the need of the organization or cause. These days you can even volunteer on vacation! If you need assistance in finding a worthy cause, check out the website VolunteerMatch.org.

3. Employ Sympathy & Empathy

Sympathy is an awareness of and reaction to another’s suffering. Empathy is understanding and feeling another’s pain yourself. Both are noble ways to respond to another’s suffering, and both offer avenues to practice compassion.

Put it in Practice: Reflect on times in your life in which you experienced suffering. Perhaps it was after the loss of a loved one, or after hearing a medical diagnosis. Think about how you were able to get through the pain and hardship. Contemplate your family, friends, neighbors, or fellow human beings going through the same suffering that you experienced. Respond with compassion by lending an ear, joining a recovery group, and/or sending intentions or prayers for healing and peace.

2. Consider Commonalities

We are all human. Even if we don’t have the exact same experience as another and cannot respond empathetically, we can still consider the commonalities that exist within everyone in the human race. Compassion is a fruitful result of thinking about these commonalities.

Put it in Practice: We recommend using the 5-Step Commonalities practice, as quoted below, that originally appeared in Ode Magazine (now, The Optimist). (4)

  • Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”
  • Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”
  • Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”
  • Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”
  • Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”
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Photo by Tucker Wilson

1. Use Metta Meditation, or “Loving-Kindness” Meditation

‘Metta,’ often translated as ‘loving-kindness,’ is “altruistic attitude of love and friendliness as distinguished from mere amiability based on self-interest.” (4) Practicing compassion through Metta Meditation is a powerful tool that can cross time and space. When you start cultivating an understanding of the suffering of others, it can help you feel connected to others and peaceful in the midst of your own struggles. You realize that suffering is a universal experience, and this compassion meditation can help you become more patient and kind with all beings in the face of hard challenges.

Put it in Practice: Metta meditation is an active practice, where the practitioner cycles through various intentions for loved ones, friends, strangers, and even enemies. The practice can be performed anywhere and at anytime by consciously extending wishes of health, love, freedom from suffering, and peace to all sentient beings. Repeat the phrases below with the key words of “safety, happiness, health and peace” to practice a simple compassion meditation.

  • I wish you safety.
  • I wish you happiness.
  • I wish you health.
  • I wish you peace.

Continue the meditation by substituting “I” or “us” for “you” to increase the effectiveness of the meditation to create a compassionate state. (5)

This blog post was co-authored by Melanie Trivette, Anna Ferguson, and Becca Odom. For more information about the authors, click here.

Please note that these suggestions and tips are based on our opinions, and should not be considered medical advice. If you are seeking to treat a traumatic experience, please consult a licensed mental health professional before engaging in these tips. You can find a practitioner in your area at the National Association of Social Workers web site: www.helpstartshere.org

References:
(1) Ferguson, Anna. “Practicing Compassion: A Highly Effective Technique for Happiness.” Vibrant Heart Yoga. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

(2) “‘Pay It Forward’ Pays Off.” ‘Pay It Forward’ Pays Off. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

(3) “WHY IT MATTERS.” Seeds of Compassion : Why It Matters. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

(4) “Contents.” Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

(5) Anna’s Metta Meditation Recording