We have not been on airplanes for the past year, but this is an instruction we usually hear from flight attendants: “Put your oxygen mask on first,” before your partner next to you, even if it is your child.

Why is this an important rule for ensuring survival? It is simple, if you run out of oxygen yourself, you cannot help anyone else with their oxygen mask. If you die, you cannot help anyone else.

Are you experiencing any of these symptoms?

This is an important metaphor for those who spend a great deal of their time taking care of others (mothers, fathers, caregivers, doctors, nurses, teachers). Taking care of others can easily deplete the caregiver. If you do not take care of yourself, you can experience burnout, stress, fatigue, reduced mental effectiveness, health problems, anxiety, frustration, inability to sleep (and even death).

Caregivers often ignore their own health

Watching a parent age or seeing someone change drastically due to illness can be devastating. Harvard Health reports, “Approximately 70 percent of caregivers indicated they don’t see their doctor regularly because of their responsibilities.” Maintaining your own wellbeing is crucial, but often difficult. If you are not sleeping well, exercising, or feel yourself becoming reclusive, speak to a health care professional about depression. It can hit anyone, at any time.

What is Caregiver Stress Syndrome?

Caregiver stress syndrome is a condition characterised by physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It typically results from a person neglecting his/her own physical and emotional health because he/she is focused on caring for an ill, injured or disabled loved one. Caregiving may involve meeting complex demands without any training or help.

The magnitude of the problem

Caregiver stress syndrome is strongly associated with negative health outcomes. Between 40 to 70% of caregivers suffer from depression, while many caregivers also have anxiety because of the stress associated with providing care. Anger and irritability are also common symptoms of caregiver stress syndrome. The chronic stress may also lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and a compromised immune system.

According to studies by Harvard Health:

Women who spend nine or more hours a week caring for a spouse increased their risk of heart disease by 100%;

72% of caregivers report that they had not gone to the doctor as often as they should have;

Caregivers have a 23% higher level of stress hormones and 15% lower level of antibody responses than non-caregivers,

58% of caregivers state that their eating habits are worse than before they assumed this role

Let Go of Your Guilt and Put your Oxygen Mask on First

Taking steps to prevent or relieve caregiver stress WILL help prevent health problems.

It will also be easier to focus on the rewards of caregiving. It is time to let go of the guilt and prioritise care of yourself:

Taking care of your own health. Try to find time to be physically active, at least 30 minutes a day for five days in the week, choose healthy foods and get enough sleep. Make sure that you keep up with your medical care such as regular checkups and screenings. Incorporate rejuvenating activities in your Self care plan:

– Sitting quietly for at least 10 minutes

– Meditating

– Watching hummingbirds or butterflies flutter about

– Listening to uplifting music

– Reading an inspiring book

– Writing in your journal

– Creating gratitude list

– Walking on the beach

– Engaging in a hobby

Staying in touch with family and friends. It’s important for you to have emotional support.

Asking for and accepting help. Make a list of ways others can help you. Let helpers choose what they would like to do. For instance, someone might sit with the person you care for while you do an errand. Someone else might pick up groceries for you.

Learning better ways to help your loved one. For example, hospitals offer classes that can teach you how to care for someone with an injury or illness.

Finding caregiving resources in your community to help you. Many communities have adult daycare services or respite services. Using one of these can give you a break from your caregiving duties.

Considering taking a break from your job, if you also work and are feeling overwhelmed. Check with your human resources office about your options.

Engaging technology. There are apps to assist in managing the pharmaceuticals needs of your loved ones and ensure medications are delivered in a timely manner.

Caregiver stress syndrome does not have to be your reality. While it can have a negative impact on your life and well-being, there are ways to recover, and to be a happier, healthier caregiver for your loved one. By taking time for yourself and focusing on your own needs, you can avoid the perils of caregiver stress syndrome.

Practice self-compassion

Make no mistake, caring for others is a positive trait. Focusing on your loved ones and offering emotional support when they struggle shows your compassion and strengthens your relationships. Prosocial behaviour, like practicing kindness toward others, can even help improve well-being by boosting feelings of happiness. Just don’t forget to treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion you offer others.

Together, we are experiencing a global pandemic and that is anything but ordinary. So, we should not expect ourselves to act like all is normal while we adjust to the “New Normal”. Let’s give ourselves time to adjust to this “New Reality” in our lives and allow ourselves grace.

Remember that if you feel better, you can take better care of your loved one.

It isn’t selfish to take care of yourself, it’s your oxygen!