For the past few weeks I’ve been interviewing experts on the topic of stress and Alzheimer’s. Every conversation has reinforced the message that caregivers and patients can protect their health by reducing their stress. It’s a commonsense idea, but hard to practice once dementia invades your life.
For years, yoga served as my stress reduction activity. When my mom first got sick, I used to rise early and do a series of poses before she woke up. Those morning moments helped me foster my own sense of calm before the day’s chaos took over. Then a yoga retreat introduced me to the restorative power of meditation. Today, I rarely go through a day without taking time to meditate. Many premier health centers like the Mayo Clinic and UMass Medical now offer programs to teach this practice to cancer survivors and others dealing with serious illness.
While researching ways that meditation can help caregivers, I’ve learned that many people don’t grasp how this practice can help us through daily challenges. My interviews led me to a great book called Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This volume reviews studies that document the links between our emotional states and illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Evidence suggests that our methods of managing emotions can exert great power over our health. Kabat-Zinn’s ideas now form the centerpiece of mindfulness training programs for patients across the country. I feel a little dumb for not discovering this book sooner, but now it can be purchased as an e-book or paperback. Both formats offer practical ideas about how to use meditation while fighting stress.
Of the various types of stress, I think caregivers suffer most from what Kabat-Zinn calls “role stress”, which springs from our thoughts about “the ways other people have done things” and “the expectations we hold for ourselves.” We are constantly driven by our ideas of how we “ought to act” to keep the care situation under control — even when such behavior damages our own health. Shaking loose from these beliefs can help us take better care of ourselves while we manage the difficult aspects of our lives.
Imagine how different you might feel if you stopped telling yourself, “I’m exhausted but I just have ten minutes to get his dinner ready” and instead said, “We’ll eat a little later because I need five minutes to myself before I start cooking.” In the first example, you stick to your imagined confines of the role — in the second, you give yourself permission to rest and recharge before reacting to your responsibilities.
The great thing about meditation is that it teaches you to pay attention to your thoughts and notice moments when you have an opportunity to slow down and act with kindness. Making these small choices helps you develop the habit of caring for yourself — while you care for others. If you need practice identifying these situations, try starting with “one minute meditations.” Each hour of the day, pick one minute to stop what you are doing and pay attention to your breathing. Try it before you wash the dishes. Look at the kitchen clock, then look out the window and breathe slowly in and out — for just sixty seconds. Do this for a single minute of every hour you’re awake. Guaranteed, after one day you’ll be looking forward to these precious breaks.
Tomorrow is Labor Day, a holiday that specifically instructs us to rest from our labors. Make it your day by picking a moment of potential stress that you transform into a minute’s relaxation. I hope you enjoy that minute and sincerely wish you a peaceful, restorative holiday.