"Yeah, sometimes I couldn’t really think straight and all that, and I knew I was really stressed, but there was always something to do, that had to be done, so you just keep going.
Caring for someone with cancer can be stressful. On top of the emotional burden of your loved one being sick, you may feel overwhelmed at all the things you have to do and feel like you can’t possibly cope with it all. These physical and emotional challenges, and the stress that comes with them, can wear your body down.
What is stress?
Our body’s reaction to stress is intended to protect us. When we face a challenging situation, our body goes into overdrive and engages the stress response. Our heart rate increases, adrenaline rushes through our blood, and our digestive and immune systems temporarily shut down. This is known as the “fight or flight” response.
Many carers say they feel out of control or under extreme pressure all the time. If the stress continues for a long period of time, and we stay in this ‘high alert’ stage, it could lead to exhaustion and burnout. It can also lead to physical symptoms, like headaches, heart problems, upset stomach, difficulty sleeping and high blood pressure.
One thing that can impact stress levels is self-silencing. This is when we keep our own needs, worries or opinions to ourselves.
Carers often self-silence because:
- They feel there is too much to do to worry about their own problems
- They don’t want to be a burden
- They don’t feel they have the right to express their needs or concerns, because they’re not the one with cancer
- They feel they need to stay positive for the person they are caring for
Keeping things to yourself could seem OK in the short-term, but in the long-term it could negatively impact your emotional, physical and mental health. It’s important to express your feelings and talk to someone when you need to.
"All the running around, trying to be there for someone and trying to keep all of your own stuff out of it... but I didn't really have time to think about it. Some days I thought 'I’m losing it, I can’t cope'...just that real out of control feeling, which scared me sometimes."
Here are some tips for managing stress. Although they might seem like they will take up time that you don’t have to spare, ultimately looking after your own health will make you better able to carry out your caring role. Time invested in lowering your stress will pay dividends for you and your loved one.
Count to ten and moderate your reaction
When you feel yourself becoming stressed, force yourself to walk away from the situation – preferably into fresh air – and count to ten. The goal is to moderate your physical and emotional reactions, and to avoid behaviours that will leave you feeling worse.
Recognise what you can and can't change, and choose one that you can. Choose something small to begin with, and then work on the bigger issues later.
Make time for regular, good quality sleep
If you want to avoid burnout, then you have to get good sleep. When you are tired, then your ability to cope with stress is threatened. You need about seven to eight hours of good quality sleep per night, although for some carers this isn't possible.
Call on friends and family, or consider in-home respite care to help you take a nap when you really need it. Contact you local Carer Respite Service in Australia on 1800 059 059.
Call on family and friends
It's important not to go it alone. Take some time to sit with your family, friends and people who support you and let them know about the practical realities of caring for someone with cancer. Discuss the possibilities and share how you are feeling. Ask for help.
Build your physical reserves through exercise and regular breaks
When emotions are running high, that is the most important time to look after yourself.
Take breaks when you can – whether it’s just 30 minutes or an hour to yourself, or the whole afternoon off.
Do something you enjoy. Here are a few examples for you to consider.
- Do some exercise – play golf, go swimming or go for a short walk.
- Do something soothing, like having a bath, getting a massage or enjoying your garden.
- Listen to music, or read a book or magazine, or write in a journal.
- Do something creative, like painting, drawing or singing.
- Relax with some yoga, pilates, tai chi or guided meditation (you might like to use a relaxation CD).
Finding a balance between caring for yourself and your loved one can minimise stress-related health issues.