Within this intense experience, caregivers can often find themselves physically and emotionally exhausted
Mindfulness has been studied and proven to have a number of benefits on our physical and mental health. Mindfulness is the act of being present and aware of our surroundings while having a neutral response.1 Practicing mindfulness can offer the average person relief from a number of different life stressors. It can make a world of difference for caregivers of patients with cancer who are balancing their personal responsibilities with their loved one’s needs often with minimal support, which leads to caregiver stress and burnout.
Caregivers are often our unsung heroes of the cancer experience. Although not going through cancer treatment itself, caregivers walk alongside their loved one during a journey that can last anywhere between a few months to a lifetime. Studies show people caring for a loved one with cancer have a shorter yet more intense caregiving experience compared to people caring for a loved one with a different type of illness.2
Within this intense experience, cancer caregivers can often find themselves physically and emotionally exhausted. Their lives do not stop just because they have become a caregiver, and so they need to adapt and find ways to navigate an even greater amount of responsibilities. Caregivers help their loved ones with activities of daily living, learn new medical tasks, and often coordinate services for their loved ones that do not leave much time left over to care for themselves.2 This lack of time can lead to poor physical health for caregivers, and changes in sleeping or eating patterns, as well as increased feelings of anxiety and depression. Many caregivers do not notice these patterns until they feel completely run down and burnout.
Research has found mindfulness can have a great positive impact in many different areas of our lives. Mindfulness can help decrease feelings associated with burnout, such as anxiety and depression, as well as improving other symptoms such as lack of sleep or gastrointestinal issues.3 These benefits can all lead to a caregiver having a more positive outlook, which, in turn, can lead to better health outcomes for themselves and their loved ones.
Caregivers might share that they do not have the time to practice mindfulness or maybe feel like they don’t know where to start. If your caregivers are not talking about self-care, you may have to be the one to start the conversation. You can remind them that the idea of mindfulness can be intimidating when getting started but it is important to not let it discourage them.
You can start with encouraging your caregivers to set aside dedicated time to practice in a quiet space with no distractions. If it is hard to find time to set aside, that’s okay too, because they can be mindful anywhere. A person can be mindful on a walk home, while eating dinner or listening to music. Take a moment to remind caregivers before they make the decision to begin this practice that the goal is not to keep the mind from wandering, because this isn’t always possible for us as humans.4 When they catch their mind wandering, encourage them to acknowledge it and bring focus back to the breath or whatever they chose to focus on.5
There are so many different types of meditations we introduce caregivers to help them integrate mindfulness into their daily routines. Progressive muscle relaxation is a type of meditation where a person will focus on each part of their body, starting from their toes and going up to their head. During this exercise, the person will tense one muscle group at a time and then release the tension. Oftentimes, we don’t realize where we are holding tension in our bodies until we make ourselves release it.
When practicing this, one should focus only on one muscle group at a time and move slowly. Caregivers can go from their toes to their head or their head to their toes, as long as they include everything that is in between. They will tense their muscles on the inhale, pause for just a moment and then release the tension on the exhale. We should encourage caregivers to feel free to breathe out audibly, getting rid of anything they do not need.
Whether you practice progressive muscle relaxation, body scans, or journaling, you are living mindfully. We all have the ability to be mindful, we just need to give ourselves the space to practice it. We need to encourage our caregivers to take care of themselves by keeping up with their own physical and mental health to be able to better cope with stress and burnout. Introducing mindfulness is one way to address both.