Start with kindness—to yourself.
We all want to spend time with people who care.
If you spend time
tending to someone who needs help in day-to-day life…
you are a caregiver.
You may not give yourself that title.
Wear it proudly—it’s a beautiful thing to be.
However, sometimes helping an older adult can overwhelm an already stress-filled life and caregivers often don’t have all the support they need or enough hours in the day. Caring can come at a cost, including to our mental wellbeing. Additionally, caregivers are often terribly hard on themselves.
A caring mental health response:
The practice of offering internal kindness and grace—self-compassion—can help process caregiver stress, burnout, and mental health struggles.
Caregivers tend to compound the already challenging moments of life with their own harsh inner critic. The Cleveland Clinic notes that caregivers are overly burdened with feelings of guilt and unrealistic expectations of themselves. Self-critical statements might sound like, “I am such a jerk for snapping at mom when we were driving,” or, “I haven’t been to the gym in weeks; I am so lazy.” The brain thinks it is doing us a favor by motivating us to work hard or live up to our personal standards. Instead, negative self-talk leads to feelings of defeat and exhaustion. Some caregivers are great at offering patience, kindness and forgiveness to just about everyone but themselves.
What is self-compassion?
If compassion is about seeing the suffering in others and feeling compelled to help, then self-compassion is turning this instinct inward. A leading researcher of the concept, Dr Kristen Neff, thinks of self-compassion as “a healthy attitude towards oneself during times of struggle.” Or, as Christopher Germer succinctly puts it, “Self compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.” Self-compassion helps us to understand that suffering is a universal, shared experience and that we can best manage it with warmth instead of shame.
Honing the skill of self-compassion can take time and patience.
Three exercises to develop self-compassion
- Get mindful and flip the script
Notice when you are in a moment of difficulty and offer yourself a kinder assessment of the situation.
In fact, research from McGill University says that treating ourselves more kindly “has been shown to be related to increased psychological well-being.”
Compassionate self-statements will sound more like, “I have been under a lot of stress. I am going to ask my sister to help with driving mom.” Or, “I haven’t been exercising and I feel best when I do. How can I make space for this in my life?” Noticing negative self-talk and consciously reframing these thoughts will help this practice to become more automatic going forward. This shift can work wonders!
- Talk to yourself like you would a dear friend
Imagine you are sitting with a beloved friend who is struggling with her many responsibilities. Would you really tell her to get a grip and snap out of it or that she is a bad daughter for forgetting about dad’s 4th appointment this month, or call her a jerk for losing her patience with her kids?
You would be more likely to remind her she is doing her best and that you love and accept her. You might then offer her a cup of tea and thank her for sharing her struggles with you. The next time you are beating yourself up, try to apply the same compassion to yourself that you would with someone else you love.
- Write it out
Writing about stressful events has been shown to improve our physical and emotional health. Practice self-compassion through journaling or by writing a letter with prompts. Writing out your stressful thoughts will help you to get them aligned with a kinder view of a difficult situation. The Center for Clinical Intervention has a Compassionate Letter Writing template (page 8) for how to write a compassionate letter to yourself. Or, you may want to make your own version.
- Mental health needs minding
While self-compassion is a great framework for coping with distress, sometimes we need more. If you are dealing with changes to your mental health at a level that is disrupting your life, read through the symptoms of depression below. This is not a comprehensive list, but show some of the most common symptoms of depression, one of the largest mental health challenges facing caregivers.
Common symptoms of depression*
- Are you spending less time doing things you used to enjoy? Do you have less interest in activities you used to love?
- Are you experiencing persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or numbness?
- What about feelings of irritability, restlessness or having difficulty concentrating?
- Have you noticed changes to your sleep or appetite levels?
- Are you feeling less energetic, fatigued and slowed-down?
- Do you often feel a sense of guilt?
- Do you experience thoughts about death or suicide?
*If you notice these symptoms for more than 2 weeks, it is important to be evaluated for clinical depression. Additionally, this list is not intended to make a diagnosis. If you think you may be suffering from depression, it’s important to reach out to a medical professional who can diagnose and support you.
If you are suffering, you are not alone
Caregivers deal with depression and other mental health disorders at higher rates than their peers. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, “40% to 70% of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression, and about a quarter to half of these caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.” In fact, the American Psychological Association recommends caregivers be screened for mental health conditions due to their elevated prevalence. This is startling but, maybe not surprising. Afterall, caregiving, while deeply rewarding, can also be tiring, confusing and isolating.
Mental health conditions, including clinical depression, are treatable
The good news is that most individuals will find relief from depression with effective treatment, according to Mental Health America. The most common and effective treatments for depression are psychotherapy and medication, or a combination of the two. A good place to start would be to talk to your primary care doctor and ask for referrals or to initiate treatment. In addition to formal treatment, doing things like eating a balanced diet, getting exercise, and spending time with loved ones are all helpful. These are great examples of self-care practices we can engage in to help bolster our mood. As caregivers, it is especially important to avoid isolation and reach out for support
Practical Books & Other Resources
If you want to dive deeper into books, podcasts and workbooks here are some recommendations:
- Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff, PhD.
- The Conscious Caregiver: A Mindful Approach to Caring for Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself by Linda Abbit
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, PhD
- Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris: The Scientific Case for Self-Compassion with Chris Germer
- Daughterhood The Podcast: For Caregivers
- Australia’s Center for Clinical Interventions published a Building Self-Compassion workbook with step-by-step modules on building self-compassion.
If you’re in crisis, there are options available to help you cope. You can call the Lifeline at any time to speak to someone and get support. For confidential support available 24/7 for everyone in the United States, call 988.
You already know how to love well; that’s why you are a caregiver. But if caregiving or other life stressors have impacted your mental health, it is important to seek support from a professional.
Engaging social supports and asking for help from our loved ones is an important step. And if you can practice self-compassion and give yourself grace through the ups and downs of your caregiving and mental health journeys, it will be that much easier to manage. You deserve to care for yourself just as well as you care for others!