Taking Care of You: A Guide to Self-Care

An elderly woman meditating.

Caregiving for older adults can be a very rewarding experience. But the fact is, caring for others with diseases such as Alzheimer’s takes a toll on your health and well-being. It is a full-time job. The energy you normally spend on yourself is being redirected to a loved one or care patient. The stress of caregiving weakens your immune system. Your brain is in a fog. You are rushing from medical appointments to then spending countless hours by their bedside. The more duties you take on, the more your own mental and physical health begin to deteriorate. Caregivers are highly susceptible to health issues such as anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and chronic digestive problems. We want to ensure that you avoid ending up in a hospital bed. Therefore it is imperative that you be aware of the negative effects caregiving may be having on you, and self-care tips to prevent them.

Caregiver Burnout

Caregiver burnout happens when you are overwhelmed by chronic stress. You may have taken on more caregiving responsibilities than you can handle, or simply don’t have the help you need. You are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted with the feeling of having little to no control. When exposed to the stress of eldercare over a long time, stress hormones are released in the body at a high level. To manage this high stress, it is first helpful to recognize the symptoms early before they become much worse. Here are some warning signs and symptoms of caregiver stress and burnout: 

  • You are isolating yourself socially.
  • You have low energy.
  • You neglect your own needs. 
  • You cannot relax, even when you have help.
  • Your life revolves around caregiving.
  • You have lost interest in activities you previously enjoyed.
  • You feel sad, irritable, hopeless, or helpless.
  • You have become negative and unconcerned.
  • Your appetite has changed.
  • Your weight has changed.
  • Your sleeping patterns have changed.
  • Your immune system has weakened.
  • You are in digestive distress.
  • You are getting headaches.
  • You have unexplainable pains.
  • You have the urge to hurt yourself or the person you are caring for.
  • You are emotionally and physically exhausted.
Being able to check your blood pressure is a great way of practicing self-care.

Managing Stress 

Once you’ve noticed the effects of caregiver stress and burnout, you must identify what is causing the stress. Think deeply about where the real issue is. Sometimes the first thought that comes to mind is not always the right one. You might think something like “I’m tired all the time because I am doing this alone. No one wants to help me.” But perhaps the issue is deeper than that. Are you afraid to ask for help? Are you trying to do too much? Are you feeling inadequate? Are you finding that you cannot say no even though you want to? 

After you’ve identified the issue and where it is coming from, ask yourself if it is something in your control to change. A lot of our suffering arises when we are fearing something happening that we cannot control. We are holding onto the idea that if we just put in a little more effort in, it will make a difference. However, your care receiver’s condition may be terminal. When we are unable to make the difference we want to, we get frustrated. The reality is that unfortunately there is nothing you or anyone else can do to change what will inevitably happen. You must accept things the way they are, and do what you can from there. Remember that you cannot control other people or situations. The only thing you can change is yourself and how you react to the situation. 

If the problem is something that is in your control to change, make a list of possible solutions. Be open-minded to all possibilities and jot them down. Look at the problem from all angles and perspectives. Once your list is compiled, choose one solution and try it. Then evaluate if it helped solve the problem. If it didn’t, go on to the next possible solution. Keep trying until you have tried every solution on the list! 

Another thing you can control is your ability to reduce your stress. There are easy things you can do that you have control over. For example, you could go for a walk or talk to a friend. But one of the most important things to help reduce stress and improve self-care is in your mindset. 

Remove Limiting Beliefs of Caregiver Self-Care 

You must identify harmful thought patterns that are getting in the way of your self-care. These thought patterns turn into limiting beliefs and misconceptions which end up causing you to overwork yourself. Thus, your health and the health of your care recipient suffer due to your misconceptions. If you change the way you see things, the things you see change. We will now outline some of the limiting beliefs that prevent you from taking care of yourself and why they may be erroneous:

  • The belief that you are selfish when you put your needs first: You have to realize that taking care of your own needs first is the fundamental and essential step to taking care of others. You cannot be a good support system if you are drained yourself. There are a couple of analogies that wonderfully demonstrate this point. One is, “Put on your own oxygen mask first.” Another is, “You cannot pour from an empty cup.” When you are pouring into your cup first, you are ensuring you have something to pour into another’s cup. If you are pouring into another’s cup first, your cup is depleted. You have nothing left to pour. Fill your cup up first. 
  • The belief that you are inadequate if you ask for help: On the contrary, it is a brave thing to ask for help. It is the sign of a self-aware and intelligent person when they have realized they have reached their limit. And absolutely everyone has limits. We all get tired, hungry, and lacking social connection. We are all human. There is only so much one person can give.  
  • The belief that you have to prove you are worthy of their affection: You might say to yourself, “If I do it right, I will get the love, attention, and respect that I deserve.” Then you may do too much as a result. You may overwork yourself and not get the validation you expect. Simply give what is comfortable for you and what is within your ability. Try not to do it to gain anything other than your satisfaction and peace of mind. When we do anything with an expectation, we will almost always be disappointed. 
  • The belief that you and only you are responsible for their health problems: Leaning on a support system is necessary. Someone else’s health is way too much responsibility for one person. There are so many contributing people and factors that influence someone’s health. There are health care professionals, other family members, and friends who also contribute. Do not look past the efforts of others. And remember illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease will take its course regardless of how much effort you put into it. You cannot control everything.
  • The belief that no one will help if you don’t: The question is, do you know that for a fact? Have you tried asking? You might be surprised who will show up to help when you need it. You just have to be open to it. There are so many good people out there that want to ease the suffering of others. Also, consider the possibility of posting a job for live-in care and respite care. Finding a professional caregiver with the right knowledge and skill-set can drastically improves your loved one’s quality of life. No one was meant to do it all alone.
  • Another huge barrier to self-care and your emotional health is negative self-talk. Negative self-talk can become a compulsive habit if left unchecked. Although realistically analyzing your faults can be helpful for your growth, it is not helpful to dwell on the negative aspects. Giving your self-critic free reign over your thoughts ravages your mental health. It just creates another obstacle to effective change. Try to identify trigger moments of your negative self-talk. Write them down. Counteract each negative statement with a positive one. If you made a mistake, just accept it and then think about what you might do differently next time. You have to accept that you are doing your best with what you got. One of the best ways to counteract negative self-talk is through self-compassion.


Right alongside managing your stress and removing limiting beliefs, self-compassion is another essential brick in the foundation of self-care for caregivers. The main principle of self-compassion is to be kind to yourself. Give yourself credit. What you are doing is not easy on any level and you deserve some self-recognition. Identifying what you have done right helps prevent the ugly self-critic from rearing its ugly head. Here are a few other things you can do to practice self-compassion:

  • Allow yourself to laugh about something.
  • Allow yourself to cry.
  • Surround yourself with positive things. 
  • Turn off the violent film, or news on TV.
  • Turn on soothing music that calms you. 
  • Set a small goal for yourself.
  • Take a break, even for just 5 minutes. 
  • Give yourself a treat at least once a month.

Breath Awareness & Relaxation

In the rush of taking care of someone else, we often jump from one task to the next with no time in between. We are disconnected from the present moment as we plan our days out in our heads. Our heart rate quickens and our breaths become shallow as we focus on the next task. We are tense and nervous. In this state, we are much more likely to make critical mistakes. It is imperative to slow your breathing down. When your breathing slows down, it sends a message to your brain to relax. Your thoughts will be less jumbled, and you can think clearer. Try this belly breathing exercise to help relax at any stressful moment:

  1. Sit or lie flat comfortably. 
  2. Put one hand on top of your belly, and the other on your chest. 
  3. As you breathe in through your nose, let your belly push your hand out. Your chest shouldn’t move. 
  4. Breathe out. You will be blowing the air out through your mouth as the hand on your belly will help push the air out. 
  5. Repeat 3 to 10 times. 
  6. Notice how relaxed you are afterward. 

Mind & Body Practices

Aside from practicing deep breathing relaxation, many other mind-body techniques combat stress. Meditation, mindful movement, and nature walks are among the most effective. Meditation helps you lower your blood pressure, stress, and risk of heart disease. It helps you bring a quality of mindfulness to your life. You will find yourself alert and aware of what is going on around you, and how it is affecting your thought patterns. Mindful movement such as Qigong and yoga also help cultivate more awareness. Among other benefits, Qigong can bring us out of the freeze, flight, or fight automatic responses by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Also incorporating sun, greenery, and fresh air is another easy way to reduce stress. Go on a nature walk. Research suggests that walking in nature can reduce depression. These important practices will energize you, making you less prone to stress buildup. 

Exercising is essential to taking care of your body and mental health.

Exercise, Sleep, and a Healthy Diet 

Take care of yourself physically. This means incorporating some kind of exercise into your day. It can mean something as simple as a walk to the store, rather than by car. Regular exercise will help maintain your stamina, balance, flexibility, and strength. These are all helpful abilities when caring for another, not to mention you just feel better. Another way to keep yourself fit is by eating healthy. Try to eat a well-balanced diet as best as you can. Because being chronically stressed leads to inflammation in the body, it is important to avoid foods that cause more inflammation. These include processed foods, refined sugars, and alcohol. It is also helpful to reduce caffeine if possible, as it raises cortisol levels. Caffeine and alcohol consumption also affect your sleep patterns. Sleep deprivation will impair your brain function. Getting a good night’s rest is incredibly important for you to be relaxed and clear-minded.   

Asking For Help 

You cannot do it all alone. To reach out for help, you have to be able to communicate effectively. You must be able to help others understand your wants and needs. Here are some tips for communicating effectively:

  • First, take a deep breath. This will help center and calm your thoughts.
  • Body language.
  • Respect that everyone has a right to make their own choices. They are allowed to feel the way they feel. Do not bring your own emotions into it. Often we are emotional when people are not living up to our expectations of them. This anger and frustration can just make successful communication more difficult.  
  • Keep clear about what you are trying to communicate. Set an intention before the conversation of what you would like to get across. If you pile on numerous tiny issues, it will exhaust the listener. Know what is important to communicate, and what to keep silent about. 
  • Try to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements when communicating what you feel and need. When you use “you” statements, you are automatically putting the other person on the defensive. It sounds very demanding. The best way to express how you are feeling and what you need is the following:  “I feel ______ because I need ______.” Hearing this, the other person will be more likely to genuinely want to help.
  • Even though the situation is difficult, do not pass up the opportunity to smile and laugh with the person you are communicating with. Life does not stop because a loved one is sick. You have to be able to continue to find joy in every minute you can. Any small boost in mood will go a long way in the rest of your difficult conversation.
  • Listen. Messages can be easily misunderstood if you are not truly paying attention to what they are saying. Miscommunication can lead to frustration and a communication breakdown. The best way to communicate is to first be a good listener. It ensures mutual respect and striving for common goals.  

Asking for and accepting help is one of the challenges many people have when caregiving. Accept that you don’t have it all together. It is ok to not be ok. You have reached the limits of what is humanly possible. Do not see asking for help as a weakness. See it as an opportunity to connect with another human being. We are hardwired for connection with others. And it is a normal and natural thing for us to work together. Here are some tips for getting help:

  • Allow others the chance to help. Give family and friends printed material on your loved one’s illness. In this way, they can better understand the situation. You might be surprised who shows up.
  • Do not keep asking the same person to help you. They might be having difficulty saying no and can become exhausted without you knowing it. Your relationship with them might even suffer. Spread the tasks amongst various people to prevent anyone from getting burned out.
  • Consider the right person for the right task. You do not need your friend to come from across town to pick up the paper when you can easily ask your neighbor.
  • Convey just how important the task is, so the person can evaluate whether they would like to help. If something you want help with is important to you, make sure they know it. If you make it sound like it is not a big deal, they may not think it is worth their time.
  • If the person agrees to help, show your appreciation. Say thank you. If it is appropriate, find a way to celebrate or reward their help. 

You may think you can do it all alone, but someone must also be caring for the caregiver.  Reach out to family and friends to maintain a support network. If you feel like your support system is inadequate, review resources such as the Family Caregiver Alliance. There are also caregiver support groups you can find at hospitals or local organizations. If you are extremely overwhelmed, try a counselor or therapist. Try to talk with someone every day, even if only through social media. Remember that you are not in this alone.

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