Is stress just part of living? It sure seems that way at times, all the more so when you’re providing care at home for a loved one who’s undergone a serious heart event or procedure. “Living in the United States today means one is living in a constant state of change, adjustment and stress,” said David Wake eld, PhD, a licensed psychologist and licensed marital and family therapist at Southwestern Regional Medical Center in Tulsa, Okla., and an adjunct professor at Oral Roberts University. “Controlling stress is so important because it is a part of everyday living in our culture today.”
Stress can have a very deleterious effect on one’s health. “Stress can be disruptive to everyday living. It is not uncommon to feel confused, overwhelmed or helpless by challenges that one experiences,” Dr. Wakefield said. “Stress also has a negative impact on our immune system. If one’s immune system is not strong, one is susceptible to many kinds of physical problems or health challenges. Having creative ways to manage stress is important to staying healthy.”
Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, sees specific physiological problems that stress can cause. “Prolonged stress can cause many health issues so controlling stress is very important. For example, prolonged stress triggers the loss of magnesium and sodium as adrenaline is pumped into the body by the fight-or-flight response,” said Dr. Dean, who is a member of the Advisory Board of the Nutritional Magnesium Association. “The highest amount of magnesium in the body is found in the heart. If the heart muscle is low in magnesium, that muscle goes into contraction, causing heart palpitations and angina, high blood pressure and potential heart attack or stroke.”
But there are very effective ways for keeping stress at bay, even while caregiving. As Dr. Wakefield noted, there’s an easy way to remember how to do it: the ABCs of stress management:
“Acknowledge that life presents many challenges,” Dr. Wakefield said. “Acknowledge also that being a caregiver brings even greater challenges.”
“Be proactive in making a plan to deal with the new stressors one is facing. Start by building on the strengths you already have,” Dr. Wakefield continued. “Then make a list of deficiencies or areas where you will need help from others. In my experience, when people go through a crisis in life, the number one predictor in how well one will survive a crisis is directly related to how much social support one has. Dedicate a point person to communicate the patient needs to everyone who is involved in helping. Humble yourself and ask for others to help. Find out what is needed for the patient and coordinate with those who are willing to help. Delegate tasks to others.”
Finally, “Care for the caregiver: The most important thing a caregiver can do is to take care of themselves first,” Dr. Wake eld concluded. “When you fly you receive preflight instructions like, ‘If the cabin should become depressurized, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling. If you are traveling with a child or elderly person be sure to put your oxygen mask on yourself first and then help the person you are traveling with!’ is advice is very important for caregivers. If you become exhausted in your efforts to love someone back to health, then who will help the patient? If one isn’t careful there will be two patients instead of just one. is advice is especially difficult for female caregivers. Women tend to help everyone else first and themselves last. When one is a caregiver you have to renew your energy daily so you will have the strength to help the patient for one more day.”
One key to being an effective caregiver is realizing you can’t go it alone. Dr. Dean said that it’s important to ask for help when you need it — “Anytime you feel the quality of your work and your own well-being will suffer if you don’t get help,” she said.
“Many people don’t offer to help because they don’t know if their offer will be accepted, so many caregivers are surprised at the outpouring of help when they ask. It should always be OK to ask for help from a colleague or boss at work or look for answers in books or classes as applicable,” she added.
The holiday season is nigh upon us, and this can be an especially stressful time of year for many people. For caregivers, it can add an additional element of stress. “Most people feel they need to see their family during the holidays and taking time o work, traveling and interacting with family members they don’t get along with adds tremendous stress,” said Dr. Dean.
Dr. Wakefield offers some helpful tips for handling holiday stress. “Take a step back and let others help during the holidays,” he said. “Make a plan to turn caregiving over to someone else over Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s so you can enjoy at least one of the holidays with your family and get some rest.
“Reduce the traditions to a reasonable amount. Set reasonable expectations for the holidays that are achievable.”
“Set boundaries for family members: what they are expected to do to help this year and what kind of behaviors are off limits this year. This year is different.”
“Learn to enjoy the gift of life and the gift of fellowship without spending money. It can still be special. is could be a great time for reflection and sharing great memories.”