Being a carer often includes taking on roles and responsibilities to help a loved one in need.
Helping someone with their personal, medical and financial needs can come at a cost, and carers often struggle to find time for themselves. This lack of time and extra responsibilities can result in feelings of anxiety, stress and even depression.
It’s often suggested that carers implement self-care, respite and wellness practices to avoid these dangers. However, carers can struggle to implement these tools due to time and lifestyle pressures.
Yet, there are two techniques carers can use to recharge, refresh and take care of their wellbeing in their own home. Cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness can be studied online and practiced in spare moments throughout the day.
So, what are these techniques? How can carers benefit? And how can they be used to reduce stress, improve coping skills and enhance our sense of wellbeing?
What is Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)?
CBT is a form of therapy that helps people manage their problems, changing the way they think, feel and behave.
It helps us discover how our feelings, thoughts and behaviours automatically revert to unhelpful or negative patterns. Participants are encouraged to counter these negative reactions by trying new, more positive ways of thinking and acting.
How does CBT work?
CBT starts by identifying our automatic thinking patterns. These unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and behaviours often develop over time or in response to life events.
They could be all or nothing thinking such as ‘if I’m not perfect I have failed’, or over-generalisations ‘nothing good ever happens to me’. Other responses include jumping to conclusions, disqualifying positives, magnification or catastrophizing, labelling, and self-blame.
These automatic thoughts have a powerful impact on our mood. So, once you identify negative thoughts the aim is to develop new habits to counter them. There are a several ways to do this.
Monitoring your thoughts is one way to start. Take the time to record your thoughts when distressed. This allows you to identify the triggers and challenge these responses.
Another CBT technique is to practice strategies, or role-play responses to situations that repeatedly cause distress. This helps develop new positive approaches, which over time replace the negative thoughts and behaviours.
Defusing your thoughts, and not taking them as truth just because they passed through your mind, is another helpful technique. Our minds are thought-producing machines and it’s our reaction to thoughts, not their presence, that determines the effect. Dwelling on the worst-case outcome only makes the present harder. If we challenge this thought, and contemplate a better future, we can improve our ability to cope and address issues as they arise.
What is mindfulness?
When caring for someone it's natural for carers to have an active mind. Carers often process a large number of thoughts, plans, worries and stresses. 'Have they taken their medication', 'when's their next appointment', 'what are we eating tonight'?
Mindfulness is a mental and physical technique you can use to calm your mind and focus on the present. Being in the moment helps you acknowledge, accept and cope with painful or intrusive thoughts, feelings and sensations. It also helps you enjoy the good times and find moments of peace throughout your day.
The practice is simple, powerful, takes just a few minutes and can be done almost anywhere, so it’s a useful tool for everyday self-care.
Mindfulness helps us overcome our stressors by providing an anchor to the present. By focussing on the present moment – turning our attention to our breath, body and senses – we can let stressful thoughts and feelings come and go without trying to judge or control them.
One simple way to do this is to recognise that thoughts are just thoughts. By adding the statement ‘I’m having the thought that…’ to whatever you are thinking, you can identify negative thoughts and let them pass. This tool gives you distance from your thoughts, allowing you to choose your response rather than reverting to habit.
Another trick is naming your stories, for example the 'I'm not good enough story'. Whenever a negative thought appears in your mind, you can identify and respond by saying 'there's the I'm not good enough story again - thanks mind'. You can then carry on, having identified and let the negative thought pass.
Mindfulness can also be useful in stressful situations. Step back like you are a fly on the wall and focus on yourself. Notice your breathing, is shallow? Notice your heart rate, is it speeding up? Are there other sensations in your body? Don't do anything to alter your state and don’t judge your responses. But use this technique as a trick to help you remain calm, staying in the moment and in control of the situation.
If you are looking to incorporate CBT or mindfulness into your everyday schedule, then there are plenty of reputable online services available.
- This Way Up is a joint partnership between St Vincent’s Hospital and UNSW.
- MoodGYM is an online CBT resource by ANU.
- Smiling Mind is an app that offers mindfulness meditation training.
- MindSpot Clinic offers online training and phone support.