Caregiver Sleeping Tips: Change Your Breath, Change Your Thoughts

This is the second in a series on tips that can help us do the work of providing care, while still preserving our health. Last week I wrote about counted breaths and how you can use them to calm your loved one. Today, here are some ways you can use this breathing technique to help yourself.

Between the Pond and the Woods

In my first round of caregiving, my mom went through a phase of waking up at night, terrified by scary things she saw in her room. It was hard to persuade her that she was safe from whatever monsters she imagined. I often used the counted breath technique to get her to relax and return to sleep. Now, in my current phase of caregiving, the tables have turned. Mom is the one who sleeps deeply and I’m the one who must wake up every four hours to tend her.

In the old days, I would have been too wound up to sleep after waking in the middle of the night. I accumulated too much stress during the day and couldn’t truly relax in the wee hours. I was also prone to worrying about everything. But now when I get up at night, I use two techniques to put myself back to sleep quickly before worrisome thoughts can get any traction.

When a fear or concern starts formulating in my mind, I start breathing to a count of three on the inhale and four on the exhale. I do this until I feel a wave of relaxation move in. If it doesn’t happen, I go for even deeper breathing — I inhale to a count of four and and exhale to a count of five for as long as I need to do it. If sleep still eludes me, I’ll go all the way to an inhale of six and an exhale of seven counts, but that almost never happens. My days are tiring in a new way and I am a few years older, so getting back to sleep is the key to staying healthy.

Counting out your breath is different than just counting sheep. It’s a technique called pranayama which is used by yoga practitioners to reach a profound level of relaxation.  It’s interesting to consider how differently we breathe when we are under stress. Think of the number of times that bad news made you “hold your breath” or “took your breath away.” When things are chaotic and unpredictable, you can’t control what’s happening externally, but with practice you can make friends with your breath and use deep breathing as a helpful tool.

If counted breath doesn’t help you sleep, I have another technique that almost always does it for me. I call it memory rehearsal. Start at the beginning of the alphabet and come up with a  happy memory related to the letter A — apples from Heckman’s Orchard — then B — beach sand and ocean waves — C — Coney Island, etc. If a negative thought tries to muscle its way in, replace it as fast as you can with a happy one. Sometimes I use the alphabet to recite yoga poses (A is for Ardha Chandrasana, B is for Balasana) just to get some variety. No matter what you lists you choose to make (tools in your garage, foods in your pantry), sticking to things that you like will force those worries to take a back seat. In order to sleep you have to give yourself permission to relax. You can always go back to worrying in the morning.

Better Caregiving Using this One Weird Tip: #1 Breathe to Win

Often when I’m doing online research I come across ads that say: Lose Belly Fat Using this One Weird Tip. Links for these articles take you to ridiculous sites. But the headline always gets my attention, so I thought I’d use it to introduce a series of posts on strange, but effective, caregiver strategies I’ve discovered during my mom’s illness.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Some of these ideas may be more or less relevant, depending on which stage of the disease you’re facing. But my intention is to start with really basic ideas that can be used in different ways throughout the caregiving journey. Here’s the First Weird Tip: Learn to Breathe Strategically.

Let’s face it. We all have to breathe. But breathing techniques are also used in physical training to improve athletic performance. If you’ve ever tried lifting weights, martial arts, yoga, or even calisthenics, you may have learned that you can control your breath to give yourself a physical advantage. I’m not an athlete, but I’ve taken yoga classes for a large part of my adult life. During the early stages of my mother’s dementia, I realized that I could use yoga breathing techniques to help Mom through delusions and panic attacks.

When she was having a troubling episode, one thing that seemed to help her was a gentle, but firm, hug and the steady sound of my breath in her ear. If I could calm myself and breathe slowly with my nose near her, the sound of my steady respiration helped Mom regulate her own breathing and bring herself back from the summit of panic.

No doctor ever suggested this to me. I just stumbled on the technique by accident when I noticed that my focused breath brought some measure of peace to us in chaotic moments. Now I use my breath in different situations to calm us both down and deal with whatever crisis is underway.

The technique is simple. When there is nothing crazy happening in your life, practice counting while you breathe. See if you can get yourself to breathe evenly — inhale for three counts, exhale for three. Keep the rhythm going for a minute or two, just to get used to this habit. After you practice it for a while in times of peace, you’ll be ready to use it when a tempest breaks loose. Think of it as a kind of “time out” that will help both of you get your bearings.

You can use counted breath to do many other things that I’ll discuss in future posts. Let me know if it works for you when you’re faced with a problem. I’d also like to hear from you if you have special tricks you’d like to share with other readers. I’ll feature the best suggestions here over the next few months.