Caring for someone you love can be a meaningful commitment. But it also takes physical and emotional energy. It’s easy to neglect your own needs when you get caught up in the details of helping. Before you know it, you may be the one in need of support.
Whether you’re supporting a friend for one day or a family member for months, don't let your well run dry. Your loved one will be leaning on you for help and guidance, and that can be hard to do if you’re overstretched. These tips will show you how to help people without getting drained and overwhelmed.
1. Don’t Lose Sight of Yourself
When you're focused on caring for others, it's easy to overdo it. You may unintentionally blur the lines between yourself in another person's needs. Being generous and thinking of others is a wonderful thing. But absorbing too much from the situation can be draining, even traumatizing in some cases. You may wonder where your identity has disappeared to.
Don't give up absolutely everything to do your caregiving. Make sure to set aside time or a motto to keep your needs in mind and won't sacrifice yourself. No matter how overwhelmed you may feel, you are more than just a caregiver. You are a whole individual with your own needs.
2. Care for Your Body
Caregiving can be hard physical work. Even when your tasks are more mental, stress can build up and take a toll on your body.
As you plan your caregiving schedule, work in time for your own physical care. Take breaks to drink water and have regular healthy meals or snacks. Caffeine and alcohol intake can be OK once in a while, but reducing them both will keep you more energized.
The physical activity you may do as a caregiver isn't the same as intentional exercise. Exercise and stretching can also be a great stress relief activity during your day.
Do your best to create a good sleep schedule. If you can sneak a nap in during the day, this may help as well.
3. Keep Your Workload Reasonable
Have you ever taken the time to write out a full list of everything you do as a caregiver? Think of how your responsibilities have changed or grown since you began this role. Consider the time you take for each task as well. This can go down a slippery slope if you aren't watchful. One hour a day can turn into two, and if you aren't careful, you can run out of time for yourself.
Keep a notebook handy as you take care of things and write down detailed records. Understanding your workload can help you know when it's time to get help or do things differently. You only have twenty-four hours a day and only so much energy to give.
4. Ask for Help
Part of being a good caregiver is knowing when you need help. You do not have to do this alone. If you try to be a one-person show, you're likely to get burned out.
Asking for help can be difficult. You may face some of the following obstacles with yourself or your family:
- Your feelings of pride and independence
- Family members not wanting to get involved
- Family members wanting to help, but being unable to
- A difficult relationship with the person you're caring for (feelings of guilt, inadequacy)
If asking for help from your family doesn't work well, get some support from your friends and other social connections.
Don't underestimate the relief of having just a few extra tasks off your mind. Find a few people willing to make extra meals for your family or help you run errands. These are simple tasks that many people are eager to do. The key is to be specific and start small.
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5. Set Emotional Boundaries
Taking care of someone often means and listening to their concerns. When someone doesn't feel well or is having a rough time in their life, it's easy to get pulled into their emotions.
Having empathy is a normal and healthy response to someone who is hurting. However, too much empathy can drain you of emotional energy. It can leave you feeling helpless and overwhelmed, just like the person you're helping. Setting emotional boundaries can help you avoid being sucked in.
Compassion is a similar response but is different in one important way. With compassion, you feel the other person's needs, but quickly turn around and take specific action to help. This essential step keeps you from absorbing too much of their emotional energy.
Empathy is sitting with your friend and crying with them. Compassion is feeling your friend’s pain and offering a comforting hug or a cup of tea. Both responses can be helpful, but compassion gives you better personal boundaries in the long run.
6. Say No More Often
Saying no is one of the most powerful things you can do to take care of yourself. As a compassionate person, you might think that saying no makes you uncaring or selfish. This is understandable if you tend to go out of your way to help others. But saying no is also a necessary part of setting healthy boundaries.
The following statements describe a few good reasons to say no.
- Being a generous and helpful person does not require you to sacrifice your health and wellness.
- You are not obligated to say yes just because someone asks.
- Your role as a caregiver does not mean you need to shoulder the entire burden.
- Sometimes you may need to say no to the loved one you’re caring for. They may want to do something that isn’t safe or healthy, or they may need to become more independent in some way.
- It’s OK to take a break or turn to other obligations that mean something to you.
- You may need to tell someone you can’t be a caregiver anymore and that’s OK.
7. Understand What You Can Control and What You Can’t
When you feel like you don’t have much control, helping can seem useless. Panic and worry can lead you in the wrong direction, chasing after problems that you can’t easily solve. To give your best help, you’ll need to develop a vital skill: figuring out what you can control so you can take helpful action.
You can't do anything about another person's thoughts, feelings, choices, or random events in their life. And you may not be able to solve their biggest problems.
- You can act and speak in comforting ways.
- You can do much-needed practical tasks.
- You can advocate for your loved one.
- You can empathize and listen.
Keep your mind on whatever seems most helpful to your loved one by finding specific ways to offer help. Instead of wondering if your mother's cancer treatment will be effective, remind yourself that doing puzzles together always makes her smile.
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8. Stay Social
Humans are built for social connection, and it's not a luxury. We need to stay connected with others to feel supported and avoid isolation. As a caregiver, you give of yourself personally. Even if you enjoy your tasks and time with your loved one, it still takes energy and effort.
Social time allows you to be on the receiving end of support. You can relax and don't have to be the one in charge of everything. You can let your guard down, laugh, and even share your troubles with someone you trust. Your caretaking tasks may cut into your normal social opportunities, so make time for it on purpose.
9. Watch Your Body for Signals of Being Overwhelmed
You know yourself best and can probably tell when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. But for many reasons, you’ve probably pushed past these signals and kept going. No matter what your reason, you can only draw out of your energy well for so long before it runs dry.
Take a moment to think about your unique warning signs of exhausting and overwhelm. Noticing these signals early is the key to stepping away or taking a break before things go too far.
- Physical: Do you feel fatigued, back pain, or a headache?
- Mental: Do you get a more negative mindset, start wishing you could get away?
- Emotional: Do you feel sad, lonely, anxious, tearful?
Once you identify these early signals, make a point to look for them. Do a self-check every day to see how you’re doing physically, mentally, and emotionally. By improving your self-awareness, you’ll pick up on those early clues more easily. You’ll be able to see a problem on the horizon, get some help or change your plans, and prevent yourself from drowning in your caregiving role.
Create a backup plan from the start or share caregiving tasks with someone else. Ask for help, and when others offer to pitch in, take them up on it.
10. Practice Self-Compassion Every Day
Your sense of self-compassion is what helps you take care of yourself every day. Self-compassion is empathy put into action to care for yourself. When you’re having a difficult time, your self-talk is understanding and encouraging. You look for ways to find support, like calling a friend to talk. You see your needs and take care of them, just as you would recommend to a good friend or loved one.
It’s common to show yourself compassion after getting overwhelmed or exhausted. But it’s more effective as a daily mindset that puts a high value on self care. Be understanding and encouraging towards yourself every day so it comes naturally during the tough times.
Care for Yourself First
As a caring person, you want to be there for the people you love. But overextending yourself doesn’t help anyone. When caring for others, your self care must be a priority. Put your oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else.
- Seppala, Emma. “How to Take Care of Others Without Burning Out.” Time, 7 August 2017, time.com/4886913/how-to-take-care-of-others-without-burning-out