How can I look after myself?
When you are a carer you spend a lot of your time focusing on someone else. It can feel unnatural to think about yourself and your needs. But it’s important that you look after your own wellbeing too. Taking positive steps to look after yourself can help you avoid physical and mental health problems. If you are able to stay well, you are more likely to be able to provide good support for longer, without getting too overwhelmed. So looking after your wellbeing is good for you and the person you care for. Here are some ideas about how to do this.
Try to stay healthy
If you are really busy, you might not always feel you have time to focus on looking after yourself. But it’s important that you make time to look after your physical health, and there are lots of things you can do to improve it. For example:
- Eat healthily – try to eat regular meals, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. It may help to plan your meals and make extra portions that you can keep for when time is short. If you find you forget to eat, try sticking a reminder on your fridge, or an alarm on your phone. (See Mind UK’s leaflet Food and Mood for more information.)
- Get enough rest – lack of sleep can make it more difficult to cope with day-to-day challenges, and make stress and depression worse. There are lots of positive steps you can take to improve your sleep. You may find that you need to change your sleep pattern, for example sleeping for four hours twice a day, rather than trying to get eight hours, sleep every night. This could help you feel less worried about not getting enough sleep. (See Mind’s booklet How to cope with sleep problems for more information.)
- Do regular physical activity – even a short walk can be good exercise and can help you clear your head. If you struggle to get going on your own, you could join a class. If you find it hard to make time for exercise, try to build it into your daily routine, for example by walking to work rather than taking a taxi. (See Mind’s booklet Mind tips for better mental health: physical activity for more information.
- Look after your general health and wellbeing – take time to notice when you are becoming unwell and try to take a break. For example, if you tend to develop cold-like symptoms when you are getting ill, take a break next time you notice that you feel this way. (See Mind’s booklet How to improve and maintain your mental wellbeing for more information.)
Share your feelings with someone you trust
It can be really important to have someone to talk to, especially if you’re struggling to cope. Think about the people in your life you can turn to for support. You may have a family member who helps you relax, or a friend who is good at taking your mind off things.
You may find it hard to ask for help or tell people how you’re feeling. Time to Change has some ideas about how you can start the conversation (see ‘Useful contacts’). If you don’t have time to meet up with people, you could try to stay in touch by email or text, or use online video chat.
Learn a relaxation technique
Using relaxation techniques can help you feel more rested. They can also help you make time for yourself. Most of the techniques here can be practised for a few minutes a day, so they don’t have to take lots of time if you’re struggling to make space for activities.
Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are all techniques you can use to relax and to help switch off from your caring role. Search online for a yoga or guided meditation class in your area. If you can’t go to a class, you can find videos and websites with instructions online. Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that involves paying attention in a deliberate way.
Take a break
Try to take a break when you need it, especially if you are worried about your own mental health. Having some time away from caring can help you feel refreshed, and enable you to manage your own mental health.
It can be hard to make a decision about when to take a break, especially if you feel guilty or worried about what will happen to the person you care for while you’re not there. You may feel more able to take a break if you ensure that the person you care for knows what to expect and has any other support they need. This may mean asking the person you care for to find ways to cope without you for a while, or arranging for family and friends to help cover your caring responsibilities. If you need some help to organise a break, you could find out more about respite care or ask your local social services such as district Integrated Community Centre for Mental Wellness (ICCMW) for support.
The length of your break will depend on how you are feeling. You may only need an hour or two to clear your head, or a day to help you feel more rested. You could go out, take a bath or turn your phone off for an agreed period of time.
It may be helpful to build a regular break into your routine. This can help you make plans in advance, give you something to look forward to and ensure that the person you care for knows what to expect.
You may find that you need a longer break, especially if you are worried you might be becoming unwell. At this stage, you may want to think about respite care (see ‘Respite care’ under ‘Support for you’).
Make time for yourself
Spending quality time with your partner, family or friends can give you a break from your caring responsibilities, help you stay positive and boost your confidence. Try to make time for the things that you enjoy, for example going for a coffee or a short walk.
Take time to pursue hobbies and activities that interest you or make you feel fulfilled. Try to do something regularly, like taking a yoga class or going to the cinema with a friend.
“I get up half an hour early to do my own thing and start the day as I like to.”
Try to be organized
Finding a way to feel in control of your responsibilities can help you manage feelings of stress and anxiety. You could:
- Make a schedule or planner – keeping a schedule of the key parts of your day-to-day routine, such as bathing, cooking or taking children to school, can be very helpful. You could also plan in more detail, for example, by keeping shopping lists and a schedule of meals if cooking is part of your role as a carer.
- Keep important information in one place – for example, emergency contact details and information about medication (see ‘Self-help resources’). You could make sure someone else (such as a social worker, friend or family member) also knows where this information is kept in case it is needed when you are unwell or not at home.
Be realistic about what you can do
It’s important to be realistic about what you can do. If you take on too much, you may feel like you never get to finish or achieve anything. You may want to make the person you care for better or take away the impact of their illness, and feel very upset that you can’t. This can lead to stress, anxiety, guilt or low self-esteem. Having a clear idea about what you can do, and accepting parts that you can’t change or do alone, helps to reduce this stress and can make you feel more able to cope.
You might find it helpful to:
- Make a list of the kind of support the person you care for needs – this helps to identify what needs doing and can give you a clearer idea of how much support the person you care for needs
- Identify what you can do, and what you need help with. Work out a plan with the person you care for about who will provide the care you can’t. For example, you may need medical support or some professional care.
- Think about how you will be able to tell when things are getting too much and you need a break. For example, you may struggle to sleep when you’re feeling low and this could be something you notice as a sign that you need a break. You could write these signs down as you may also want to share them with someone you trust and ask them to let you know if they recognise that you are becoming too stressed and need a break
Make sure you have all the information you need
Making sure you have access to reliable, clear information can help you feel more in control. This could be medical information about any diagnoses the person you care for has, or advice about your rights. If you’re not sure where to find this, looking online or asking your doctor are both good starting points. Plan for appointments and take notes of things you want to talk about. This will help you remember what you want to say and to get the information you feel you need.
Medical language can be really complicated, so don’t be afraid to ask for further explanations if you don’t understand.
Information about medical treatment
“The person I am caring for wants me to know about their treatment. “
Make sure that the person you care for has told any medical professionals, social workers and support staff that they are happy for you to have access to your medical information. You could ask for a note to be put on any records confirming that you have permission to see them.
“The person I am caring for does not want me to know about their treatment.”
If the person you are caring for does not consent to you receiving information about their treatment, you may still be able to receive general information. For example, a doctor may give you information about a health problem, but not specific details of the treatment that is being offered.
It’s important that you are given the information you need to provide care safely and effectively. If you are concerned that you or the person you care for will be put at risk because you do not have essential information, you should raise this concern with any medical staff involved. They will agreement of the person you are caring for.
Find positives in your relationship
Being a carer can have a big impact on the relationship you have with the person you support. Sometimes you may feel very close and connected, while at other times you may feel distant or irritated with each other. It can help to talk openly and honestly to find ways of coping with these challenges together.
For example, you could try to:
- Talk to each other about how you will strengthen and maintain positive parts of your relationship
- See each other as whole people, with interests, characteristics and hobbies
- Think of yourself not only as their carer but also as their friend, partner or family member
- Try to do nice things together, as well as carrying out day-to-day responsibilities – this will help maintain your relationship outside of being a carer, and help you connect on a different level
- Think about what you get out of caring, and write down a list of positive things that you can look at when you are feeling frustrated or low
- Recognise practical and specialist skills and knowledge you have gained, or people you have met that you wouldn’t otherwise get to know
Focusing on these positives can help you feel that you have a deeper relationship and understanding of the person you care for, and appreciate that they may feel this way about you too.
“I would urge anyone who is a carer to try to see the positives in your situation and to realise you are there out of love and respect for the person you are caring for.”
Support the independence of the person you care for
Work with the person you care for to see how they can help themselves. Together you may be able to enable the person you care for to make some decisions about their care on their own, and identify times they can cope on their own. It is important to try to respect the opinion of the person you care for and help them have some control over their care. This could mean making sure their wishes are expressed to doctors, or letting them try activities on their own. You may find that this means taking a step back, or supporting decisions that are not what you would do. But this could help the person you are caring for feel respected and in control.
You may also find it helpful to talk about what support they would like from you. This may change over time, so it’s worth revisiting this conversation.
Make a crisis plan
If you are concerned about what would happen if you become unwell, having a crisis plan in place can help to reduce stress (see ‘Self-help resources’).
Thinking about the following things when you are well can help you feel prepared for a crisis:
- Discuss what will happen in an emergency with the person you care for, and agree on a plan with friends, family or paid care workers
- Write a list of who should be contacted in the event of an emergency and keep it somewhere easily accessible
- Leave details about your caring responsibilities, such as medication you normally give and ongoing treatment the person you care for is having, and make sure someone else knows where this information is. This could be a friend, family member or health or social care professional