By Robert M. Oliva, ND, LMSW
Clarity of thought, focus, and stable emotions are characteristics that can help any overwhelmed caregiver meet the needs of caring for a loved one. Unfortunately, under the stress of caregiving, these qualities are often in short supply. The practice of mindfulness can be of great assistance in bringing our minds and emotions under control while expanding our capacity to give the care that is so needed.
Losing our Harmony
As stressed family caregivers, we spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about things: What’s going to happen tomorrow at the medical evaluation? Will our loved one take the new medication? Are we going to have the energy to get all our chores done and perform our caretaker tasks? Will the finances hold up? We can lose our patience and say and do things we later regret.
Lots of time can be spent lamenting the past and the things that could have been done better or on the things we wish hadn’t happened. Our minds jump from anxiety to worry minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day. The fears and pressures of life begin to take up a large part of our waking and even sleeping reality.
The tendency of our minds to jump from thought to thought can be very helpful at times. It reminds us of the things we need to pay attention to. But there is a dark side to this process. We become the victims of the non-stop thinking that jumps from worry to worry. We are left with fear, anxiety, and mental and physical exhaustion that reduces our happiness and caregiving effectiveness.
This entire process can be frustrating and exhausting. For caregivers, it can be deadening.
In Buddhism, this mental process is called the Monkey Mind. Buddha himself put it this way:
Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.
When the monkey mind is left unattended it leads to an incessant internal monologue that makes it virtually impossible to remain clear, focused, and effective in what we are doing. The more we let the Monkey Mind have its way the more we lose control of our own thinking and feeling. If we let the monkey keep grabbing at all the branches, we are in for a wild ride.
Monkey mind is like being on mental autopilot.
In Karen’s April 3rd blog post on this site, she mentioned that an important strategy for coping with caregiving is to stay in the present. Mindfulness is exactly the way to accomplish this. Although a regular sitting meditation practice can help keep us focused, mindfulness can be practiced at any time during the day. It is especially good when utilized during difficult and emotional moments. It’s like taking meditation on the road wherever you go.
Mindfulness is a way to quiet monkey mind and gets off autopilot.
Hackspirit.com lists six ways or habits you can develop in using mindfulness to great benefit. They can be helpful in life and especially in caregiving.
Noticing the Lack of Mindfulness
Have you ever been lost in thought? I’m sure you have. A good place to start on the path to mindfulness is to become aware of when you aren’t.
Much of our time is spent on being engulfed in thoughts that pop up out of nowhere. And we get stuck with them. Noticing when this happens is a good way of becoming aware that your Monkey Mind is dragging you along for the ride. Once you notice that you are losing your focus you can bring your attention back to the present.
Paying Attention to Your Thoughts
Thought and feelings are occurring to us all the time. Being mindful of what they are in a non-judgmental manner can be helpful in reducing the emotional upset and distractibility they may cause. It also helps us become more aware of what may be prompting them.
Monitoring your thoughts and feelings can become a daily habit that reduces the emotional upset they cause. You don’t have to be at the mercy of your thoughts. You can note them and over time choose what you will do with them. It’s not necessary to only do this when you are meditating or sitting alone. Practice in real time. Especially during your caretaking time.
Actively listening to those around you is an important part of being mindful. Each day we have numerous conversations. Intently listening to what people are saying improves your communication with others as well as understanding clearly what is being said.
Listening makes us aware of the emotions and concerns of others. This can bring deeper meaning, stability, and satisfaction to our relationships. But don’t only practice listening to what you consider important conversations. Do it with even the most seemingly inconsequential ones. As caregivers, the ability to fully listen to those we care for cannot be underestimated.
Being Thoughtful About Your Breathing
Your breath is always with you. Breathing is a natural process of living. Breathing is your anchor to the present. As the Buddhist monk, Thick Nhat Hanh has said: “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky, Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
Noting and monitoring your breathing is a way of calming monkey mind. With the breath, you become centered. The agitation of the moment can be reduced by concentrating on the inward and outward flow of your breathing. You can practice breathing while meditating. As you progress, start to practice when you are alone at lunch or waiting to face a challenging caregiving situation. Ultimately, you will be able to use your breath while in actual real-life situations to calm and focus yourself.
Turning Repetitive Tasks into Something Memorable
Many of the things we do in life become mindless habits. Even driving is something we think little about. Taking the time to be mindful of your everyday tasks, say brushing your teeth, allows you to quiet your mind. By focusing on what you are doing, you can reduce the negatives of the monkey mind and the worries of past, present, and future.
Focusing on what you are doing prevents too much wandering from taking place.
Noticing Something New Everyday
Every day is different. By stepping back and being mindful and non-judgmental of what’s happening around you, even the mundane things of your life can teach you something new. You can see your relationships with those you care for in a new light. This can open new vistas that would never have been imagined.
By looking a little closer and focusing on what is in front of you, you may come to see what was once hidden. For caregivers, this is an invaluable tool.
Mindfulness is a valuable personal tool for caregivers. Regular practice enhances mental clarity and focus, deepens emotional stability, as well as heightening the capacity to deal with the stresses endemic to caregiving.
Mindfulness can be effective as a sitting meditation or as regularly practiced during our daily activities. Taking the time during the day to follow your breath, become aware of your feelings, your reactions to situations, actively listening, and remaining attentive to your tasks can deepen your capacity to serve and be happy. It’s a bulwark against the threat of burnout, emotional distancing, and overall distress.
As you practice mindfulness, you will notice these changes manifesting over time. The more mindful you become the more you and your situation may be transformed.
Here are some resources to help you get started and sustaining your mindfulness practice:
Dr. Robert M. Oliva is a New York State licensed Master Social Worker, a traditional Naturopath, a certified Holistic Health Practitioner and a health and fitness writer. He is a member of the American Naturopathic Medical Association, the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and the National Association of Social Workers. Dr. Oliva is a former Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College (CUNY). He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.