It’s part of being alive. Feeling joy, hope, fear, sadness, and a range of other emotions is what we do. We all experience ups and downs, but with the added layer of caregiving for a senior loved one, when negative emotions arise guilt and frustration are often byproducts. After all, we are supposed to be steady and even in the way we relate to someone so dependent on us, no matter how challenging the circumstances, right? That may be an ideal concept but it’s not usually what happens. Sure, there will be a day when technology produces caregiving robots capable of providing 24/7 care without feeling negative emotions—or feeling anything for that matter. But for now, as human beings are not machines, at times on the job we are going to feel anger, resentment, a sense of overwhelm, etc. So how can family caregivers manage these negative thoughts and feelings when they come up, or more effectively, stop them from coming up in us in the first place? In short, how do we change our perspective?

Going Beyond Positive Thinking to Address Caregiver Burnout

Bonnie Saunders, 72, has been caring for her husband of 45 years since he was diagnosed both with dementia and then advanced kidney disease in 2018. On dark days, well-meaning friends and family have advised her to “think positive thoughts,” which she says puts a band aid on the problem but doesn’t change it. “In fact, it can cause even more frustration and negative thinking when I get angry at myself for being less than positive and don’t see a way out,” she says.

They’ve also recommended respite care for Bonnie which she does occasionally use, but there are simply times when more is needed. “Refilling the tank is one thing,” she says, “but authentically changing my attitude is another.”

Psychologist Marsha Lucas, Ph.D., a former caregiver herself, specializes in the neuropsychology of relationships. She explained to AgingCare that becoming stuck in a pessimistic mindset often happens when caring for a senior loved one. “When you’re in a place that is so difficult, challenging and bleak 24/7, it becomes very difficult because your mind is constantly rehearsing the difficulty,” she says.

Lucas points to the core issue: How a caregiver’s mind interprets and responds to their environment in the first place. Using that as a foundation, Lucas advocates “mindful awareness.” This practice harnesses the brain’s ability to rewire pathways (neural connections) to better adapt to new or challenging situations. In other words, if for years your response to change has been fear and anxiety, there is a way to alter that.

Mindful awareness (also known as mindfulness) means being fully present in the moment—aware of and not judging your own thoughts and feelings. Along these lines experts say we are separate from our thoughts and feelings. They come up, and we should allow them, but they do not define who we are or our ability to handle what’s put before us. They are fleeting and often reactive to a situation, but being fully present in the moment allows us to take a step back and observe them for what they are. In the act of caregiving, acknowledging our feelings as such allows us to direct our attitude to be more positive. So how do we do that, and how do we make that our default behavior rather than something forced?

Cultivating Mindfulness to Help Manage Negative Emotions

Lucas maintains starting small is the key. Find a few minutes each day to sit quietly, focusing on your breath going in and out and the physical sensations associated with it, instead of what happened earlier or your to-do list.

Retraining the neural pathways to the brain involves periodically stopping to focus completely on what you are doing, whether it is eating, cleaning, walking a pet, bathing someone, etc. Too often we are not fully present, our mind wandering to a previous conversation, an upcoming meeting, what we forgot to do at home this morning, the load of laundry ahead when we would rather be in bed. Bringing our thoughts directly into the present will strengthen our ability to focus automatically as we get better at it.

Finally, mindfulness is not a panacea for all negative thoughts and feelings. Over time, however, it can help improve the body’s response to anxiety and anger, Lucas says, making us more resilient, and certainly more patient and empathetic with ourselves and the people around us.

 

Coping with Negative Emotions While Caregiving,” written by Beth Herman, Amada Blog contributor.