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Taking Care of Yourself

Taking Care of Yourself

Tracy
All right, next we’re going to talk about one of the most important things that you can do as a caregiver. The very best thing you can do to take care of your family member with TBI, and all the others members in your family that depend on you, is to take care of yourself.

Seriously spending all your time dealing with your family member’s needs can leave you feeling just absolutely drained.

Travis
My mom is the worst. Sometimes she doesn’t sleep for days, and I’ve seen her skip a lot of meals. She makes sure that me and my sister eat, but she always says that she’s not hungry. I mean I just think she just doesn’t want to leave Dad alone.

Michelle
Travis.

Travis
No mom. You told me that we need to be completely honest when we’re here, that’s what I’m doing. I’m worried about you.

Michelle
I know, honey. It’s just that I’m trying to be here for your Dad, and for you and for Emily. I’m feeling like I’m being pulled in a thousand different directions.

Tracy
So Michelle how are you sleeping?

Michelle
When I go to bed, things just run through my head. When I finally do go to sleep, I wake up in the morning with reality hitting me in the face, like I can’t believe this is happening. I get out of bed and just put one foot in front of the other, trying to get through the day. I know that I have to do a better job taking care of myself.

Tracy
Well thank you both for your honesty. You know taking care of yourself, both emotionally and physically, it can help prevent something that we call caregiver burnout.

Julie
I have to admit that I went through a burnout phase, when I just felt so hopeless. I hope you guys can avoid that.

Tracy
You know you’ve already taken a really important step to avoid caregiver burnout by joining a group. Talking with others about your feelings... that really can relieve the stress and it helps reduce the anxiety because it helps you know because it confirms the fact that you’re not alone.

Another thing you can do if your stress, your sadness, or your anxiety gets… gets to feel out of control... get some help from a counselor, a therapist, your spiritual leader, religious leader, or a social worker. 

Julie
It was a few months after Sam got hurt, that I realized I needed some help. I went and saw a psychologist and that was probably one of the best things I did. She helped me process some of the stuff that was going on, which made it easier for me to cope somehow.

I saw her for about 2 months, and I even got Carl to come along sometimes.

Carl
I was surprised, but it really helped. When we were less stressed, we started to sleep better, eat better, things like that.

Tracy
That’s great. You know you can be a much more effective caregiver when you’re healthy. Let’s talk for a moment about some of the behaviors that will help. Of course, like Michelle is discovering sleep is absolutely essential.

Megan
Yeah. I guess I just want to be there when Clayton wakes up, so I’m there almost all the time. And I really just use the Fisher House to shower, or eat once in a while.

Julie
I thought it was important that I was always there and awake in case Sam needed me. Turns out, I can think clearer, make better decisions when I’ve had some sleep and something decent to eat.

Tracy
That’s right. Absolutely right. You’ve gotta give yourself a chance to sleep, and eat as well as you possibly can. I mean overeating or eating a bunch of you know comfort food, or fast food that might be tempting right now, but just really please try to stick to a healthy diet. Of course, that can be a real challenge when you’re spending most of your time in the hospital.

But another challenge involves your activity, that’s really important, particularly important for caregivers because the exercise can help relieve the stress, reduce the depression. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. You know something simple. A 30-minute walk on most days is usually enough and you know you can break that 30 minutes into 10-minute segments, if that’s any easier. Break away, take that walk. And if you already have an exercise routine, try to stick to it. Doing things that were important to you before your loved one’s TBI can… can really help. It can help you cope. It can help you be a better caregiver.

Another thing you know when life is stressful, some people turn to alcohol or other drugs. They somehow think that that’s going to help them cope. It just doesn’t. Try to find some other ways to relieve your stress.

But remember, you can’t take care of someone else unless you’re strong and you’re healthy. And that means that you should keep up with your regular appointments, be sure to pay attention to any medical problems that you might have.

Taking care of yourself is… is not being selfish. I mean it’s doing what’s absolutely necessary to make you a better caregiver. If you become sick, if you get worn out, or burned out, you just… you won’t be able to take care of them. TBI is different than a short-term illness. That caregiving journey can take a long, long time, and taking care of yourself... it allows you to be there for your loved one and for the long haul.

Carl
Yeah, I didn’t do a very good job of taking care of myself, and now it’s starting to take its toll. My blood pressure is high, and other physical things are cropping up. Julie finally forced me to go in for an exam, and my doctor wasn’t happy. I’m doing better now, but I just… I didn’t feel I could take time for myself when Sam was having such a hard time. You know what I mean?

Michelle
I do. Even though this is new to me, I know that I’ve been letting myself go in a lot of ways.

Julie
You know Tom is going to need you more and more as he recovers, Michelle. It actually took me a while to realize this but taking time for yourself is actually the unselfish thing to do. Even if you just go for a run, or take time to actually go to the cafeteria at the hospital instead of grabbing something from a vending machine…

Michelle
How did you know?

Julie
Cause I did it myself. Still do sometimes…

Travis
Hey, what’s wrong with vending machines? I mean you can get a full, 3-course meal out of those things.

Tracy
Oh I think the point here is that it’s really each of your responsibility to pay attention to your own physical and emotional health. Overall, this plays a really important part in Tom’s, and Clayton’s, and Sam’s recovery. And there are some strategies that can help you do that.

Megan
Like what?

Tracy
Oh well, controlling your stress level is definitely one. You can use what I call the “Stress Busters” to relieve stress and help keep yourself calm throughout your caregiving journey, and all of the time, really. Helps always so... For example, you could try practicing deep breathing or something called Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Both of those are described in your Guide for Caregivers.

Julie
I was surprised by how well the progressive relaxation worked for me. Sam’s PT actually told me about it when I was having a rough time. He also taught me how to meditate.

Tracy
That’s good Julie, yeah. You know another stress buster involves managing your time wisely. Plan ahead so that you have plenty of time to arrive at appointments on time. Plan your day, your week sensibly, so that you’re not trying to you know cram too much in, get too much done in too little of time.

Oh and like I mentioned before, find time to exercise.  Exercise helps your brain release endorphins, which are those natural substances in your body that reduce the stress, make you feel better, just overall well being. Also gives you some time alone, which is important.

And then there are ways to relax and take your mind off your daily routine. Read a book; watch a movie or favorite TV show, spend a little time with a friend.

Your Emotional Health

Caregiving requires you to take on new roles. You will need to learn new skills to help your family member with TBI. Keep in mind, all these new demands happen at the same time that you and your family are coming to terms with the impact of TBI on your loved one.

You want to give the best possible care and support for your family member’s recovery. You may find yourself spending all your time and energy dealing with your family member’s needs. This may leave you feeling drained.

You may be tempted to put your own needs on hold. It’s not wise to do this. You won’t be able to give the best care or cope with your new tasks.

You may move through a series of stages as you come to terms with the changes in your family member. In the first couple of months, for example, you may be feeling happy that your service member/veteran is alive and hopeful that he or she will recover fully and quickly. As time goes by, progress may slow and you may feel anxious and scared. Sometimes you think that a full recovery might happen faster, if only he or she would work harder at it. As recovery progresses, you may find yourself feeling discouraged and depressed or even guilty. You just don’t know how to help your family member get better.

Feelings of depression may progress into feelings of despair and a sense of being trapped, if recovery slows down over time. If your service member/veteran has sustained a severe TBI and recovery is difficult, you may find yourself experiencing a period of grief and deep mourning. Eventually—and this may take up to two years or longer—you may find yourself stepping back from the pain, accepting what is, and finding peace in your family’s situation.

You may not go through these stages exactly like this. Knowing what many caregivers and family members go through as they adjust to life after TBI may help you know that your reactions are “normal.”

Although your reactions are normal, there can be harmful effects if you focus all your attention on your service member/veteran:

  • You may experience caregiver burnout. 
  • If you do not take care of yourself—emotionally and physically—you may end up being harmful to yourself.
  • You may feel listless, isolated, or bottled up. Those who are burned out may try to use alcohol to cope. You may have poor hygiene or have emotional outbursts. These are signs of burnout and compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is an outcome of chronic, unrelieved stress.

If you do find yourself suffering from caregiver burnout or compassion fatigue, take heart in the knowledge that you are a deeply caring person.
Here is a list of what you can do:

  • Find a friend or family member to talk to about your feelings or join a support group with other families affected by TBI. Talking with someone can relieve stress and reduce anxiety because you will learn you are not alone.
  • State affiliates of the Brain Injury Association of America can help you find a support group.
  • If stress, sadness, or anxiety begins to feel out of control, seek professional help from a counselor, therapist, religious/spiritual leader, or social worker.
  • The Coping with Caregiver Challenges table describes many of the common issues that caregivers face. Also, the table offers ideas for steps you can take to cope.
Related Information:
Your Emotional Health
Coping With Caregiver Challenges
Your Physical Health
Problem Solving
Stress Busters
Stress Test
Caregiver Self-Assessment
Glossary
Frequently Asked Questions
"He really won’t tell me the whole story because I think he doesn’t want to scare me. But, he brought me a piece of metal back home that was embedded in the wall right behind him. He said it missed his head by a few inches. He said that he thanks God every day that he’s still alive, and that’s why he brought the piece of metal home, to show me that that’s how close he had come to dying." -  Lynn C-S.

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