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Taking Care of Yourself

Taking Care of Yourself

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.

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.


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.

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.

So Michelle how are you sleeping?

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.

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.

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

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. 

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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

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…

How did you know?

Cause I did it myself. Still do sometimes…

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

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.

Like what?

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.

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.

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.


If you don’t get enough sleep, you are likely to be tired and irritable during the day. You also may find it hard to concentrate. Studies show that people who do not get enough sleep are less productive, tend to overeat, and are even more likely to get in accidents.

Try these tips for getting a comfortable night’s sleep:

  • Establish a routine for when you go to bed and when you get up every day. This can reinforce your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Take a bath, read a book, or find another activity that helps you shift from your busy daytime life to restful sleep.
  • Go to bed when you’re tired and turn out the lights. If you can’t fall asleep, get up and do something else until you’re tired.
  • Do not rely on sleeping pills. Check with your doctor before taking any sleep medications, as they can interact with other medications or a medical condition. You may have an underlying sleep disorder that requires treatment.
  • Don’t exercise close to bedtime. It may make it harder to fall asleep.
  • If you are having trouble sleeping, use the tips above to ease your concerns.
  • Avoid too much alcohol and caffeine. Too much of either usually reduces the quality of sleep.
  • Have someone stay over to take over the care duties during the night.

Healthy Diet

A healthy diet is one that is low in fat, high in fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and includes lean cuts of meat, poultry, eggs and other protein sources. A healthy diet also helps you to maintain a healthy weight.

It can be tempting to overeat. Do not use food as a comfort when you are stressed and sad. You may gain unwanted weight.

Use low-calorie versions of comfort foods, e.g., sugar-free hot chocolate, or find other ways to comfort yourself, such as a hot bath or a good book.


Exercise can relieve stress, reduce depression, make you feel better about yourself, help you maintain your weight, and give you some time alone.

It doesn’t have to be strenuous. A 30-minute walk on most days is usually enough to protect your health. You can break the 30 minutes into shorter 10-minute segments, if that’s all the time you have.

If you already have an exercise routine in place, try to stick with it. Doing things that were important to you before the TBI can help you cope. You will be a better caregiver.

If you are new to exercise, check with your personal health care provider and start out slowly. Remember to include stretching and strength building in your routine.

There are many exercise videos that you can use at home. You don’t need to find the time or money to go to a gym.

Tobacco Use

If you don’t use tobacco products, don’t start. Find other ways to cope with the stress.

If you use tobacco products, stress may increase your tobacco use. If you use tobacco products, it may be difficult to quit during periods of stress, such as when you are learning to care for someone with TBI.

Your goal right now may be simply to not increase the number of tobacco products you use each day.

Later, you may want to start cutting down on the number of tobacco products and then quit altogether.

The nicotine in tobacco is addictive. Most smokers find it takes several attempts to quit before they are successful. Ask your doctor about medications or programs that can help you quit.

Alcohol and Drugs

When life is stressful, you may find it difficult to solve problems, make decisions, and take care of yourself.

Some people turn to alcohol or other drugs to help them relax. Alcohol tends to make problems worse.

Using alcohol or drugs to make you feel better in the short term can be dangerous. You can become dependent on these substances. This will interfere with your responsibilities to your family.

If you drink, do so in moderation (i.e., one drink per day for women, two drinks per day for men). Find other ways to relieve stress and to reward yourself for doing a hard job well.

Routine Medical Care

Remember, you can’t take care of someone else well unless you are strong and healthy.

This includes getting routine medical and dental care, such as preventive screenings (e.g., mammograms, blood pressure checks) and regular attention to medical problems that you may have.

It’s okay to have your family member with TBI sit in the waiting room while you see the doctor, dentist, or other provider if he or she is able, or make plans for care if he or she cannot be left alone.

If you become sick, worn down, or burned out, you will not be able to provide good care to your family member.

Related Information:
Your Emotional Health
Coping With Caregiver Challenges
Your Physical Health
Problem Solving
Stress Busters
Stress Test
Caregiver Self-Assessment
Frequently Asked Questions
"It had been 15 months and he had slowly improved. But he couldn’t talk. He’d kind of start trying to mouth words, but he just couldn’t talk. And so, on October 21st, 2005, I’ll never forget that morning. I came in to the bedroom and I said, Fred, how are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Fine.’ Okay. I think he just talked to me. So I just turned around and went back into the kitchen, got his breakfast, came back in and thought, okay, let me try this again. I said, ‘Fred, how are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Fine.’ It wasn’t a lot at first, but he could talk." -  Denise G.



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