In our experience, stress is one the most common caregiver concerns. It is a critical issue because unmanaged stress puts you at risk for burnout. Common “care for the caregiver” advice usually includes exercise, good nutrition, maintaining social life, asking for help, and setting limits. While these are important, we think three other techniques are equally important to help you manage and master your stress. This month’s Elder Voice focuses on Breathing-Relaxation, Meditation, and Mindfulness (Think BReMM).
Before we go further into BReMM and why they help, let’s take a look at what happens when you are stressed about caregiving. If you pay attention to what is going through your mind you may notice that you are pre-occupied with thoughts about managing caregiving tasks or coping with the behaviours associated with dementia. You may be worrying about what will happen in the future, such as upcoming decisions about care facilities, finding the right help, or finances.You may be ruminating about what has occurred in the past, things that make you feel guilt or regret. These thoughts may run constantly through your mind during the day and may even interrupt your sleep at night.
If you pay attention to what is happening in your body when caregiving becomes overwhelming and you are preoccupied by worries, you may find that your muscles are tense and your breathing is shallow. You may feel surges of nervous energy, or conversely, feel physically exhausted. These are the the physical responses of your body to the thoughts in your mind.You are activating your body’s stress response system.
BReMM techniques help you “turn off” the stress response and help you manage the worrying about the future or the ruminating about the past. Research has proven that, along with exercise, they are the most effective ways for managing stress and anxiety. They also help to mitigate some of the risks that accompany caregiving such as depression, sleep disturbances exhaustion, and an impaired immune system. They work because it is physiologically impossible to be stressed and relaxed at the same time. It is mentally impossible to worry about the future or ruminate on the past if your thoughts and senses are focused into the present. They can give you a sense of peace and calm and the feeling that you can manage. As important, they can help you become more effective at caregiving.
Many people hear terms such as meditation or mindfulness and think, “oh, this is not for me.” It may be outside your experience but we urge you to consider trying them. They are easy to learn and can be done by setting aside fifteen minutes a day. If you miss your time or find you have only ten minutes due to the roller coaster that caregiving can be, you can use that time. You can do them just before you go to sleep or when you wake up, or during a coffee break at work. Eventually you will be able to integrate them into your life and use them wherever you are, and whenever you feel stressed.
To learn the techniques of BReMM, you can take courses through a community centre, search for them on google or Youtube (in your search plug in the terms separately, e.g. search for breathing, relaxation, meditation, or mindfulness), or you can learn some of them through yoga classes. The following article will also teach you how to do them in fifteen minutes a day.
A Simple Way To BReMM: Breathing, Relaxation, Meditation, Mindfulness
The following is a basic outline for learning and using BReMM.
First, find a place where you can close your eyes and be alone for fifteen minutes. Make sure there are no distractions. (Turn off your cell phone!). Sit comfortably, with your feet on the floor, or lie down. Allow your eyes to close.
1. Begin with focused breathing. Take a four second, slow, deep breath into your belly. Hold it for two seconds and exhale slowly, for at least four seconds. Wait two seconds and repeat the cycle. Keep doing this breathing cycle at least five to ten times, or until you notice you are naturally breathing more slowly.
2. When your breathing is slowed, you will start the relaxation. As you exhale, you will systematically begin to relax the muscle groups in your body. Start with the muscles in your face. Wherever you notice tension, relax until the tension around your eyes, forehead, ears, etc, is gone or lessened. Then move down into your neck, shoulders, arms, chest, stomach and legs and do the same for each group. If you have trouble relaxing the muscles, sometimes it helps to tighten them first and then relax them. After you have relaxed all the muscles, mentally scan yourself. If you find tension in one muscle or muscle group, breathe and relax till it is gone.
3. Meditation: With your breathing slowed and your body relaxed, think of one image to focus on in your mind that you find peaceful, perhaps a beach or the mountains, or a candle in the dark. As you are breathing slowly, focus on that image. Keep picturing that image. When you notice your mind drifting, gently go back to the image.
4. Then the mindfulness stage: Gradually bring your mind to the present. Start to become aware of what you feel, smell, hear. Feel what the ground is like under your feet, or the chair on your back. Being mindful is about awareness of, and being in, the present. The smell in the room, how your body feels when you breathe. Hold yourself there, and when you find your mind drifting back to the worries, gently just notice that is what you have done, and go back to being mindful of the present.
The first two steps take about five minutes together and the other two about five minutes each, but of course you can take as long as you wish, especially for the meditation and mindfulness. You might want to alternate between them, one day do the meditation, and the next the mindfulness.
At first, you might find your mind wandering fairly frequently; this is common.The more you practice, the easier it will be to become relaxed, stay focused on your meditation or the present. You will also find that you can use these tools all during the day.
After a while, you can do these anywhere. Walking down the street you can focus on your breathing to slow it down, relax the muscles in your shoulders and back and face while you walk, and then focus on the present–the trees, the rain, the sounds. Allow yourself to be totally involved with the present. And you will let the worry recede.