This article first appeared at NBCNews.com:
Caring for a loved one can be a full-time job, often on top of another full-time job and competing family obligations. According to CDC data, one in five U.S. adults provide informal care for loved ones, with one in six non-caregivers expecting to start caring for a loved one within the next two years . While the work of a caregiver can be draining, it can also be rewarding and provide a sense of fulfillment. In honor of National Family Caregivers Month, here are some tips for how caregivers can reduce stress and avoid burnout, and be better equipped to take care of themselves in addition to a loved one.
1. Embrace the role
Respect the enormity of the role. This is a crucial step in being a caregiver. It can also help you gain perspective, seek help, and understand that there’s no such thing as a perfect caregiver — a realization that can alleviate feelings of guilt and the common tendency of caregivers to ignore their own needs.
2. Learn the risks and signs of caregiver burnout
Caregivers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress, especially if they live with the person they’re caring for, so it’s important to learn the risks and signs of burnout. If you are a caregiver you may experience depression, social isolation, financial insecurities or have no say about your role. The many symptoms of caregiver stress include frequently feeling tired or overwhelmed, gaining or losing weight, not sleeping enough or sleeping too much, and experiencing headaches or another physical affliction. Additional symptoms include irritability, losing interest in activities once enjoyed, and abusing alcohol or prescription drugs. Recognizing these signs is crucial, as they can signal a problem for which there are solutions.
3. Make room for self-care
Familial caregivers are often resistant to the notion that caring for oneself is the best way to care for others. “Despite the burdens on caregivers and the negative impact of caregiving on their economic, physical, psychological and social well-being, caregivers do not usually receive the attention they need,” says Maria I. Lapid, M.D., a psychiatrist with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “More importantly, caregivers do not seek out help because they typically attend to patients’ needs and place their own physical, spiritual and emotional needs on hold.” Giving yourself permission to practice self-care may be hard initially but can lead to a greater sense of peace and purpose.
4. Prioritize personal health
Set personal health goals, such as getting a good night’s sleep regularly, eating a healthy diet and making time for physical activity on most days. Even small changes can have a big effect on energy level, alertness and overall outlook. You can build on the positive gains by keeping up with physical exams and screenings and staying current on vaccinations. Be sure to share with your doctor that you’re a caregiver. “For your emotional health,” says Jamie L. Friend, program director of Mayo Clinic Wellness Coach Training and Certification, “make a list of small, simple things that bring you joy and energy. Then try to do at least one of those things every day.”
5. Let friends and family help
When friends express a desire to help, say “Yes.” Be specific in delegating tasks, such as doing a load of laundry, making dinner or picking up items on their next trip to the grocery store. Keep a list of things friends could do at the ready in case they ask. If you’ve already said, “No, I’m fine,” so many times that friends have given up asking, let them know that you’ve changed your mind and would love their help.
6. Stay connected
It’s not uncommon for people to withdraw from the world when they’re feeling overwhelmed but doing so often make things worse. It is important for caregivers to make it a regular habit to check in with family and friends who can provide emotional support, in whatever way is most convenient. Staying connected is bound to be a source of solace and inspiration for you, when the going gets tough.
7. Try yoga
One study found that caregivers who participated in an eight-week yoga group experienced physical and emotional benefits — no surprise given the practice’s focus on bringing mind and body into harmony. Though there has been limited research on the benefit of yoga for caregivers, several studies suggest that it may lower anxiety levels and blood pressure, reduce stress, alleviate symptoms of depression and improve the ability to cope.
8. Join a caregiver support group
Though initiating a social activity may seem like something a caregiver has no time for, connecting with a group of individuals — either virtually or in-person — in similar situations can be an invaluable source of encouragement, a place to pick up practical tips and a way to foster new friendships.
9. Tap into local services
Juggling myriad responsibilities, it’s inevitable a caregiver could be unaware of vital local services like meal delivery, housekeeping and transportation. To learn what local resources are available for caregivers use Eldercare Locator, a website run by the U.S. Administration on Aging that connects the public to services for older adults and their families, or consult your city or state’s department or office on aging.
10. Consider respite care
Recognizing the need for a break is itself a positive acknowledgment of how hard caregiving is. It’s well worth making it happen — for both you and person you are caring for. In-home care providers can be booked for nearly any length of time, and adult care centers and short-term nursing homes often offer temporary respite care as well.
11. Practice mindfulness
Whether channeled through yoga or meditation or simply a mindset, mindfulness is the art of being in the moment and open to the world rather than consumed by feelings of anger or resentment, anxiety or guilt. “Encourage positive thinking and be kind to yourself,” says Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D., a Mayo Clinic neurologist. “Try to avoid your own inner thoughts that start with ‘I could’ or ‘I should.’ These tend to be critical, judgmental thoughts and aren’t helpful.” Discarding such thoughts leaves much-needed room for affirmation, including appreciating the immeasurable value of your caregiving.