Quieting the mind: Stress reduction practices for hospice caregivers
By Valerie Hartman
Hospice caregiving brings about stress and sadness of a life-altering nature. As the holidays bring even more stress and emotional expectations, finding a day, an hour, or even a moment of peace and relaxation is essential. I can’t say this enough- “Worry and fear are what define stress as a hospice caregiver”. Calming the nervous system for a short time each day is an important self-care plan that will enable you to cope from day to day, or week to week.
Complementary therapies used in the healthcare setting are meant to calm an overtaxed nervous system’s response to worry, concerns, and fears. Whether it is a visit with a massage, music, or pet therapist, or a Healing Touch session, each modality shifts the effects of tension into a feeling of peacefulness and sense of security. Therapeutically, this means that the nervous system has been calmed.
Having short periods of relief for the nervous system allows you to keep up with the physical and emotional demands of caregiving. This brief time of relief enhances our ability to cope during long and enduring times of stress. We all likely know what it is like to feel “on the edge”, or “about to lose it”, or like we “can’t do this anymore”. Learning ways to take control of your nervous system and finding ways to calm tension for a brief time each day can help us to find the strength to continue on in our caregiving role.
As a complementary therapy nurse, I teach about the importance of self care and stress reduction. My prescription for the stressed caregiver is this:
Find thirty minutes each day, or even ten minutes three times a day, to calm your nervous system.
We have talked in prior posts about treatments or therapies that work on the nervous system: massage, reflexology, acupressure, lavender essential oil baths, hand or foot rubs, deep breathing, or a walk in the park (or around the block).
Another approach is to quiet the mind. Quieting the mind by eliminating thoughts that worry you will stop the stimulation of the stress hormones that cause the anxiety, sleeplessness, and muscle tensions. Although it can be challenging to learn how to stop these thoughts, once you practice and learn how to do this you can do it anywhere and anytime being ‘calm’ is called for.
Three mind calming practices that are used often to relieve caregiver stress or the stress felt after a loss are: meditation, guided imagery, and progressive relaxation exercises.
Meditation involves sitting in a comfortable position, focusing on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, and emptying your mind of all thoughts. When a thought comes into your mind, let it float past. Learn to observe the thoughts that come in and let them flow out, until your focus on breath clears all thoughts. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Programs are often available to healthcare professionals and community members. Mindfulness meditation tapes and CDs and other resources are also available to assist you in learning this practice.
Guided Imagery involves sitting or lying in a warm comfortable environment and position. It requires a CD player or MP3 player with purchased guided imageries of personal taste and choice. The voice guides the listener through a visualization using sounds and descriptive passages (for example, a walk through a forest or the sounds of ocean waves) that will mindfully bring your nervous system into a calm state.
Progressive Relaxation involves listening to a calm, directive voice that brings your mind’s attention to each part of your body to relax it. The progressive relaxation starts at the feet and works the mind up and through each tension area until you reach the head and neck. Many people do not even remember getting to the end of the guided relaxation because they fall asleep before they complete the progressive relaxation exercise. Like guided imagery, progressive relaxation exercise programs can be purchased on a CD or tape, or can be downloaded on a MP3.
Most hospice social workers, pastoral counselors, or bereavement coordinators can provide a live guided imagery reading or progressive relaxation session during regular visitations. You can also ask if there are any tapes or CDs available to you through the hospice program. Tapes or tools for any of these practices can usually be purchased at your local bookstore or on the internet. YouTube also has free guided imagery videos online.