By Courtney Woodruff
I never knew it was possible to be so desperately exhausted.
I’d been told over and over again to sleep when the baby slept, but my body seemed to be rebelling against me. Most nights, long after our firstborn son had drifted off, I would lay awake, watching the gentle rise and fall of his chest and the sweet, involuntary twitches of his face as he dreamed.
When I did manage to nod off, more often than not, I would jolt awake to the sound of phantom baby cries. Startled, I would reach across to grab the cold sheets on the other side of the bed where my husband should be. I longed for my partner to share the experience and responsibilities of new parenthood, and the heartache of missing him did not mix well with the roller coaster of postpartum emotions.
Whether you are spending your days tending to a newborn baby, an ill family member, a wounded spouse, or young children in the midst of a deployment, over time, the draining work of caring for the overall health and well-being of another person can take a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual toll on your body.
Signs of caregiver fatigue — anxiety, irritability, changes in appetite, weight and sleep patterns, and increasing feelings of resentment — often go unnoticed. It can even manifest itself in physical symptoms, such as frequent headaches, stomachaches and ulcers. As a result, caregivers are often more vulnerable to illness and depression, and when left unchecked, it can lead to a downward-spiraling ability to have compassion for others.
In order to take better care of the one who cares for the people you love — that’s you! — I’ve collected 10 tried and true practical ways to combat caregiver fatigue.
1. Know your mission.
Understanding what it is you are called to do — and why — helps bring a profound sense of purpose and meaning to the significant, yet often draining and unrecognized, work you do every day as you care for the people in your life. Write out a personal mission statement, and post it somewhere you will see it often: on the refrigerator door, near your bed, by your mirror, or in your planner. Even though it may not feel like it on a daily basis, take comfort in knowing what you are doing is making a difference in the world.
2. Seek community.
No matter what you are going through or how isolated and invisible you may be feeling, it is important to recognize you are not alone. Research the local support organizations in your area, and search for groups on Facebook to connect with. Being able to share your thoughts, experiences and feelings with others who can understand what you are going through, because they have been there, too, can bring a healing sense of relief, compassion and camaraderie into your life.
3. Get dressed.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but the truth is, caregivers often put the health and hygiene of others before their own. Even when you are not able to take a shower, put on a colorful top and comfortable pair of jeans, brush your hair and teeth, and even apply a little bit of make up. Feeling put-together can go along way when it comes to boosting self-esteem and morale.
4. Take a walk.
We all know exercise is an important component of self-care, but for those who spend their days nurturing others, it is yet another task to add to the bottom of a toppling list of priorities. Instead of worrying about finding time to squeeze a daily exercise routine into your already busy schedule, simply go for a walk as often as you can. Walking is a fantastic way to get yourself out of the house for a little bit of fresh air, a change of scenery and the daily dose of physical activity you need in order to maintain your health.
5. Eat healthy snacks.
Keep healthy snacks around that do not require a lot of time or effort to prepare. Fresh and dried fruit, nuts, vegetables with hummus dip, whole grain crackers and low-fat cheese sticks are great options that help boost your energy levels when you do not have time to make (not to mention sit down and eat) a well-balanced meal.
6. Listen to uplifting sounds.
Whether it is your favorite playlist, a classical music station on Pandora, relaxing white noise, such as the soothing sounds of ocean waves and raindrops, or an inspiring podcast, turning up the stereo can help you keep your mind focused and spirit uplifted as you perform routine tasks throughout the day.
7. Inhale relaxing scents.
Burn candles or diffuse essential oils to add a little bit of tranquil ambiance to the atmosphere of your home. Scents like lavender, frankincense and chamomile are known for their calming qualities, while lemon and geranium are said to have refreshing, cheery elements that help rejuvenate sinking moods.
8. Make time for yourself.
Instead of waiting for opportunities to find you, be intentional about building quiet moments — no matter how brief — into your daily routine and schedule. Take a few minutes to process your feelings and struggles through journaling, meditation, or prayer every morning, curl up in your favorite spot with a good book and a cup of coffee, or treat yourself to a hot bubble bath. When you can, allow a family member, friend or reliable nurse or sitter to take over your responsibilities for a few hours so you are able to get some much-needed time away to decompress and re-focus.
9. Pick a hobby.
A personal project — whether it is a pattern to cross-stitch, a scrapbook to put together, or a junk piece of furniture to spruce up — is a therapeutic, creative outlet through which we have the ability to express our true selves. Stick to your favorite hobbies or try your hand at something new. Get out your old sketchbook, watch videos on YouTube to learn how to knit, pick up an adult coloring book and a fresh box of colored pencils, start a blog, or practice photography with the dusty camera you can’t stop thinking about. Whatever you choose to do, be you.
10. Share your story.
Our experiences matter. They have the power to change the world around us by shifting perspectives and deepening our understanding of one another. Turn your pain and heartache into an opportunity to help others who may be going through a similar circumstance. Share your story with a close friend, members of a support group, on a blog, or even consider writing a book. What you have to say just might be what someone else needs to hear right now.
Over time — and plenty of trial and error — I adjusted to my new role in motherhood, and learned how to take better care of myself while caring for our baby boy.
Combating caregiver fatigue is just as important to the overall health and wellness of those we are responsible for as it is to our own bodies, minds, hearts and spirits. Pay attention to how you are feeling, do not be afraid to ask for help when you need it, and reach out to others when you can. We are all in this together.
Courtney is a military spouse, mom of 2 boys, graduate student, and part-time writer-editor for a travel & lifestyle magazine serving military families stationed in Europe. She has a heart for our troops and their families and hopes to share what little she has learned along the way to help others overcome the unique challenges of military life. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Courtney At Home, or through her social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.