What to do for caregiver blues

If your days are dark, here are some ways to lighten them.

Ask your doctor, “Could I be depressed?” Feeling sad or overwhelmed is a normal response to super-sizing your job caring for others. Your doctor can distinguish an expected under-the-weather mood from true clinical depression.

Sometimes it’s easy to make the diagnosis of depression and other times it’s tricky. We tend to view illnesses of the mind and of the body as separate. Sometimes, disorders of the mind (like depression) can manifest as aches and pains in the body, and other times, disorders of the body (like thyroid problems, for instance) can manifest as mood changes.

Many people resist the diagnosis of depression because they believe there is shame associated with problems of the mind. You would not be ashamed if you had appendicitis or the flu or required eyeglasses. Depression is just another illness that affects a different organ system.

Go play. Your grandmother was right, regular exercise benefits the mind and the body. Exercise changes the brain chemistry in a way that improves sad moods. Even a 10-minute walk can make a positive difference. Park a little farther away from work or the store. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. You will reap many rewards, including a sound night’s sleep.

Use your stress-busters. Let’s face it: Caregivers live with lots of stress. While you may not be able to control the stress in your life, you decide how you respond to the stress. Make a list of five things you can do when you feel stressed. Maybe it’s taking that brisk walk, writing in your journal or calling a friend. The time you most need stress-busters is the time you’re most likely to forget them, so put the list on the fridge.

Rethink people-pleasing. People-pleasers go to great lengths to make others happy, avoid conflict and be seen as a nice person. They often care for others at their own expense; many take pride in their ability to ignore their own needs. They run the risk of depression both from the lack of self-care and from the futility of efforts to make another person happy. Attending to your own needs puts you in a better position to nurture others. The very first blood vessels that leave the heart feed the heart itself.

Reach out to others. Connect with friends who are good listeners. If getting out of the house is impossible, join an online community. Tell your story and see chapters of your own story, told by others.

Redefine hope. It may be true that you care for someone for whom there is no hope for a medical cure or recovery of independence. Even in the face of death or long-term disability, there’s always hope. Capture the joy that’s always there, even in the presence of pain.

Get help. Clinical depression is a real medical condition diagnosed by a professional that improves with intervention. Treatment of depression is a high priority because it both assuages the caregiver's pain and allows the caregiver to more fully step into the role of supporting loved ones in their time of need.

Dr. Vicki Rackner is a board-certified surgeon and clinical instructor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She is an author, professional speaker and consultant who helps others find their own voices and advocate for their unique health needs.

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