Whether it be a paid role such as a teacher, nurse, therapist, or social worker, or we’re one of the 1 in 10 people in the UK who fulfil an unpaid carer role, many of us have responsibilities that involve caring for others. For a lot of us, our roles might give us a sense of fulfilment. Many of us will enjoy caring for others and find that it gives us a sense of purpose. For some, caring for others takes its toll. Whatever our ‘carer’ capacity might be, it can limit the amount of time and headspace we have available to look after ourselves.
Boundaries are important and are at the very foundations of self-care. It can be mighty difficult for those of us who are in caring roles, to assert those boundaries. There’s a heightened sense of responsibility that comes with having people in our care. We often neglect our own needs to make sure theirs are met. Our compassion, passion, energy and commitment aren’t in limitless supply, though – they need topping up at regular intervals too. Oftentimes, this is made even more difficult due to funding cuts and staff shortage, perhaps guilt too, so we step up to the plate which can affect anything outside of that role; relationships, hobbies and our health.
Protecting our limits is a vital part of self-care. It’s really important that we take our breaks and annual leave from any paid work that we have, and that we don’t do any work (including answering emails!) outside of work time. There is a reason that our employers legally have to give us a certain amount of annual leave and so many breaks.
In unpaid caring roles, being boundaried can be harder, because often these roles will mix with our personal lives and may well take place within our home. It’s hard to boundary our ‘caring’ and ‘non-caring’ time when we can’t shut the door on it. But the fact that it’s harder doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. If we need to take 5 minutes to sit down and have a cup of tea, and someone asks us for something (non-urgent) the minute we sit down, we’re allowed to say ‘no’, or ‘I’ll do it in five minutes time’. We are allowed to say ‘no’ to things that we don’t want to or are unable to do, however uncomfortable it might feel to begin with.
We all need downtime, we’re not machines. Nobody can run at full capacity all of the time – it’s just not possible. For many of us with caring roles, we are naturally caring people, so we often find that our friends and family come to us for support and advice. Due to how empathetic we are, we often respond and consequently find that a lot of our downtime isn’t downtime any more.
We need proper breaks. Time to let our body unclench. To relax. Time to switch off from the day (or night) that we’ve just had, and to let everything settle. We need to protect this downtime because it’s only through a balance of ‘on’ and ‘off’ time that we can continue to carry out our caring role to the best of our ability.
Drink Enough Fluid
When life gets busy, we often forget to drink enough. If we do grab a drink, it’s often a caffeine-based drink such as tea or coffee. Although tea and coffee are fluids, caffeine can be a diuretic, so caffeine-based drinks aren’t always very hydrating.
Having a water bottle and keeping it topped up and in our bag, can help us to make sure that we’re drinking enough.
Everything is harder to cope with when we’re hungry. We often feel more tearful, our cognitive functions can slow down, and our perspective can get a little skewed. Sometimes when we reach the point where everything feels utterly un-cope-able-with, a little bit of energy can help us to feel like we have everything under control again.
For many of us in caring roles; life is busy. We might not have set breaks, and it’s very easy to start skipping meals and forgetting to eat.
Our days can often be long and exhausting and the last thing we want to do at the end of the day is to start thinking about what meals we need to prepare (and when we’re tired, hungry, and can’t think – deciding what to have to eat becomes even more difficult).
Writing a meal plan and batch-cooking meals in advance can help us to manage our meals. Having something waiting for us in the freezer that we can just chuck into the oven, can make a huge difference. During the day, it can help to have a packed lunch and lots of snacks available to us. Snacks in the house, car, office, and our bag. Having a packed lunch and strategically placed snacks means that if we get a minute then we can quickly grab something to eat.
Exercise isn’t right for everyone, but for those of us who are able to exercise, it can be a great release, can help us with sleep, and can lift our mood through releasing endorphins.
If we’re struggling to fit exercise into our day, we could try walking or cycling to work if that’s a possibility. It might be helpful to team up with a friend or family member to motivate us out of the door (particularly in the winter when it’s often wet and cold). If we can afford to, getting the advice of a professional such as a personal trainer can help, too.
Exercise should be something that we do to care for our body and mind. If we find that we’re using it to punish ourselves or to allow ourselves to eat certain things, then that might be something that we need to reflect on and possibly to reach out for support with.
Whether we’re into pot-painting or potholing, our hobbies can lift our mood, help to get us out of the house and introduce us to others who have similar interests. We often ditch out hobbies when life gets busy, but they can be an important part of our self-care. They allow us to have a break from the caring that we do and to do something that we enjoy ‘just for us’.
Knowing When You Need More Help
There are times when we all need to ask for a helping hand. This could relate to our own personal lives or to our caring role. Sometimes it might be because we can’t physically manage something alone any longer. At other times, we might hit a wall and need another perspective on something. It could be something more personal, such as needing someone to cover us while we go to a doctors appointment. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help when we need it and the earlier we seek it, the better. There isn’t a clause anywhere that says that if we’re a carer then we’re not allowed to receive care ourselves – on the contrary, to enable us to care for others to the standards we hold of ourselves, the more help we need with the rest of life. It’s not a sign of weakness in any shape or form. Burn out occurs when we’re repeatedly expecting an awful lot of ourselves or carrying a heavy burden of expectation from others that’s simply not sustainable day-to-day.
Let It Out
Caring roles can leave us carrying a lot of conflicting and complicated emotional and mental thoughts and feelings. Sometimes talking can help us to let it out, but that doesn’t work for everyone. For some of us, talking just isn’t our thing.
It can be helpful to find a few different ways of expressing the stress. Not everything will work for everyone all of the time, so by having a few ideas of ways to let things out, if one way doesn’t work, then we can try something else.
We could try running, walking, painting, swimming, drawing, writing, singing, dancing, listening to loud music, baking, going to the gym, ripping up paper, scribbling, gardening, throwing pillows at a wall… whatever it is that works for us.
Listen To Your Body
Our bodies are smart. They tell us when we’re hungry, thirsty, tired, need to sit down, and when we’re doing too much and need to slow down. Many of us choose to ignore these signals – they’re often not very convenient. For example, if our stomach grumbles when we’re in the middle of providing personal care to someone, it’s not something that we can respond to right there and then, so we tend to ignore it.
There are times, like the one above, when we have no choice but to ignore the signals that our body gives us. But there are many other times when we could listen to our body, but we’re either switched off from the signals our body gives us or actively choose not to listen to them. Taking time to check in with ourselves and work-out what our body is saying to us and what it needs can help us to respond appropriately and can help to stop us from burning out.
Maintain Your Environment
A tidy environment can help us feel calm, settled, and as though we have our life somewhat together. If we can’t find a single clean mug, or the stack of paper on our desk is becoming increasingly precarious, it can cause stress when we’re trying to do something as simple as make ourselves a drink.
When we’re already stretched to our limits in terms of time and energy, decluttering can sound like a bit of a kick in the chops. If there’s something about our environment that’s bugging us or causing repeated stress, then it’s an act of self-care to deal with it; that pile of post, that blown bulb, the lack of clean mugs. And, don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be all on us, these are great practical things we can ask for help with.
Getting some fresh air is something we often forget to do. Many of us go from inside our house, to inside our car or public transport, to inside our office, and back again. We can go the entire day barely breathing in any outside air.
Nature and fresh air can make a really big difference in how we feel. We probably won’t have time to go on a 10-mile hike each day, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t interact with the outside world. If we’re able to, we could consider walking or cycling to work. During the course of our day, we could take the person, or people, that we’re caring for outside if that’s an option. If we’re working in an office, or even in someone’s home, we could (with permission) open the window and let some of the outside air in. We could even do something as simple as walking around the block on an evening, if we’re physically able to, or sitting out in the garden for a while.
Sleep is a vital building block when it comes to looking after ourselves. Lots of us skimp on sleep in order to fit more into our day. Many of us struggle to sleep due to thinking too much. Lots of caring roles require odd hours including night-shifts, long hours and changing routines. It can be difficult to prioritise sleep when our caring role prevents us from establishing a routine or when worries and concerns consume our thoughts in the middle of the night.
When we’re tired, life gets harder. It’s harder to think and to process things, harder to cope with difficult situations, harder to focus, and we might find that we’re particularly tearful or grumpy.
If we struggle to sleep then following sleep hygiene principals might help us to nod off a little more easily or to maximise the sleep times within the interchanging routines we may have.
Someone To Talk To
In caring roles, we often get told things that can be hard to hear. We might also experience some really difficult situations. Some days might be horribly stressful and leave us feeling completely worn down and wrung out.
All these things can pile up and leave us feeling as though we have a monumental burden weighing us down.
Having someone who we can talk to can help us to cope with this stress and pressure. As long as we’re respecting the confidentiality of those we work with, and working within any policies set by our workplace, it doesn’t really matter who we speak to. This could be someone in a professional capacity – such as a supervisor at work, colleagues or a non-work-related therapist, or someone in a personal capacity such as friends or family members.
For some of us in caring roles, the internet is our lifeline. If our caring role means that we have barely any time to interact with our friends and family or to see anything beyond the four walls of our house, the internet can provide us with some light relief and allows us to stay in touch with people which can stop us from becoming totally isolated.
However, some of us might find that the internet overwhelms us. With so much information coming at us, it can be hard to settle down and relax. Unplugging, switching off, and taking some time to be still, can help to stop us from feeling so overwhelmed.
Self-Care Isn’t Selfish
Self-care isn’t selfish. There are no ‘ifs’. No ‘buts’. There isn’t a single person who this doesn’t apply to. Self-care isn’t selfish – it’s necessary. Self-care provides us with a solid foundation, allowing us to care for others to the best of our ability. In the same way that we can’t pour from an empty cup – we can’t look after others unless we look after ourselves.
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