Self-care for the frazzled caregiver
In my experience, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects families as profoundly as it does the sufferer; more specifically, the spouse and/or caregiver. My husband has both PTSD and a physical disability, which requires four doctors and various medications to keep under control. Many times, I find myself struggling just to compete with it, not only to maintain a functioning coparenting relationship with him but also to keep him on track so that our family can stay afloat (as we live comfortably, but precariously, on his benefits) without falling through the cracks of bureaucracy. Since I take care of him and our two babies (a three-year-old and a six-month-old) full time, I’m still learning how to navigate those benefits efficiently to stretch our budget, minimize debt, and secure family health coverage. In the daily struggle to make sure everyone’s fed, healthy, and on schedule, it’s easy to forget to feed myself, much less incorporate self-care when every day presents a new set of fires to put out.
With admittedly little motivation to take care of myself in the ways I know I should, I decided to use my smartphone as a tool for self-care rather than for escape. While earning a degree in exercise and health science, I took several courses in the psychology of behavior change: tiny, consistent steps forward, rewarding short-term accomplishments with a long-term goal in mind—in other words, “slow and steady wins the race.”
I’ve found if I can trick my brain into doing a tiny bit extra here and there, thereby making each task less daunting, then I can stay motivated longer and shake off any feelings of guilt or failure. For example, one of my goals is to become fluent in Spanish, so I use my Duolingo app that gives daily lessons in five-minute increments. Another goal is to improve my body composition and stamina. Whenever the kids are napping or preoccupied, I sneak in five to 10 minutes of interval strength training using my 8fit app. If the weather is nice, I’ll take them out in the stroller and use a step-tracking app. I also feed my faith with my Bible audiobook during long drives, and the kids go right to sleep.
Tips for becoming your own support system
PTSD has a way of making those who care for the sufferer feel isolated and hopeless about helping their loved one. Guilt and empathy inevitably follow, which can lead to secondary depression or even secondary PTSD if circumstances are severe enough. Since a home will always need cleaning and friends aren’t always available, sometimes we must become our own support system. Consider the following suggestions to help you get started:
1. Write down three personal goals for yourself. What could they be? A skill? Spiritual/health goals? An item on your bucket list? A book you want to read and/or write? A trip you want to save up for?
2. Set aside five to 10 minutes each day (without skipping a day) to devote to one goal. If you forget one day, pick up where you left off the next day. Learn to rest, not to quit.
3. Track your progress! Stay accountable to yourself (or another Solo Mom who will keep you on track) by checking off a goal and/or writing down new ones. Document your journey. Nothing feels as good as clothes fitting better, crossing off a big project from your list, being able to do something new, or paying off a debt.
4. Give yourself small rewards. To stay motivated, set a time frame for short-term accomplishments and treat yourself along the way. On Sundays I splurge for a Southern comfort meal, or I’ll buy a movie on Amazon Prime or get a manicure. Whatever little luxuries you can swing, even if it’s just an hour alone with your earbuds in, make your small victories over complacency and depression that much sweeter.
5. Plan and prep your meals for the week. “A failure to plan is a plan for failure.” As a Solo Mom, my vice is emotional eating and fast food. Pair anxiety with hypoglycemia, and you can understand why my “baby weight” is still here six months postpartum. To curb this impulsivity, I have to prep meals for the week and pack a lunch every day to keep my blood sugar from tanking. This is also prudent for frugal grocery shopping, so you save money and burn calories.
6. Be nice to yourself. Do the best you can, even if some days all you can manage is a shower and to feed yourself. Don’t let your brain tell you that’s not enough. Depression is a bully, and it holds no authority whatsoever on your value as a person or a caregiver. Baby steps and gentle forgiveness. Begin again tomorrow.
7. To post or not to post? There’s science behind social media as a potential roadblock in your journey to reach your goals. The simple fact is that the more people you tell your goals to, the less likely you are to obtain them. Your successes are your own. Surprise people with the end result, sharing your process after it works for you. If it doesn’t, you won’t have to answer to anyone but yourself.
8. Be charitable. Philanthropy doesn’t usually come to mind when talking about self-care, especially considering how much we already give of ourselves to others; however, if there’s a cause that’s dear to your heart, consider a small donation or becoming a volunteer. Reduce stress and anxiety with gratitude.
Essentially, you’re just taking back the quality of life that PTSD may have stolen from you, inch by inch. You not only will be setting an example for your kids but also will have something left of yourself at the end of the day that renders you strong against despair and able to enjoy your family.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.