Staying effective despite caregiver stress
March 24, 2014 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Can any caregivers here offer tips on managing bandwidth (time and emotions)? Looking specifically for practical tricks/hacks to quickly switch mood states when time allocated to productive work is interrupted by big and small worries.

This is how I felt last month. I'm feeling less burned out but am still struggling to cope with parent-related news and events that pop up during times I have allocated to writing/reading/studying.

I am in regular contact with parent throughout the day via phone calls. Interruptions include little and big emergencies. I do not like limiting answering calls -- I have done this and missed urgent news related to e.g. medical events that have to be dealt with then and there. When something happens, I then call to check if I can't go there myself. Sometimes the calls are about loneliness, and I have a hard time saying no to those too, because I know talking helps.

I am working on getting additional support so I don't feel it's all on me, but it just is for now, and it's hard to shake the additional feeling of responsibility.

How can I better triage and schedule these calls, and manage my own worry? Practical tips on scheduling, environment and useful mantras are welcome.

Basically: I need hacks to quickly switch from more or less freaking out to being task-focused. Thanks.
posted by cotton dress sock to Human Relations (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry this is what I want to do better: take a call, deal with it or make a plan to deal with it, shake it off, move on.

(Or other things you think would be good.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:24 PM on March 24, 2014

For the everyday chats, to alleviate loneliness and keep in touch: Can you convince your parent to have a specific time for this? "10 AM to 10:15 is the time Cotton Dress Sock and I have for keep-in-touch chatting." How computer literate is your parent, and how much brain power do they have? Can you sit down with them and say, "I have studies to keep up with and a life of my own. I know you love me and want to keep in touch. Let's agree to keep a schedule for the "I am lonely and just want to chat" calls. Does 10 AM work for you? Is 15 minutes enough?"

Does or can your parent use email to keep in touch, as well? That might take some of the burden off you.

As for the emergency calls: is it possible to let unscheduled calls go to voicemail and then call them right back?

I think that if you can keep "chit chat" calls to a specific block of time during the day, and convince your parent to keep to the schedule and not call you at random times, you might feel more comfortable answering the phone at other times because it is more likely to be an emergency.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:33 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I was raising two special needs sons while also ill myself and married to a career soldier, I found that a nap, a glass of water, and/or a bite to eat were very often the difference between feeling like I was going to explode and feeling like "the sun will come out tomorrow..." (insert musical notes). So I recommend you take good care of yourself physically. Take your vitamins. Eat right. Exercise. Make sure you are sleeping well. If you are not sleeping or eating well, work on that. Make that a high priority.

I have a chronic condition that is currently well managed. My long experience is that physical/health stress is often the root of difficulty dealing with feelings. Being too tired or in pain or hungry or thirsty makes just everything that much more grating, makes me insecure about "what did that person mean by that??" and so on. So, if possible, I simply don't do certain things until, say, I have had lunch -- because I know lunch is the difference between me sounding like a whiny basket case and me sounding calm and competent when I communicate.

Additionally, I would try to see if you can get parent to switch to text messaging you instead of calling. I find that email let's me have my freak out moment without signaling it to the other party. That helps bring stress down. I can freak out, not have them know, get myself calm, come up with a better answer and then calmly reply. Even thirty seconds can help you get your act together without having the negative emotions magnified by either sharing them or trying to suppress them so the other person doesn't know. "Written" (digital) communication is a godsend for me in that regard. No one has to hear the stress in my voice and it gives me a buffer, socially, emotionally and practically.
posted by Michele in California at 1:36 PM on March 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

I did a very intense undergrad and it was 4 years of study study study and NO partying, NO 'college experience' nada, working two jobs during the summer to make tuition etc etc.

Days when I wanted to throw a fit, throw up, or throw in the towel I would repeat to myself:

"Short term pain, long term gain.
Short term pain, long term gain.
You can do this.
You can do this.
You can do this.
Short term pain, long term gain."

That was almost 10 years ago. I now make a good salary, my life is in general relaxing and I don't struggle day-to-day anymore. Every once in a while I thank past me for sticking to it, since present me gets to enjoy it now.

The NLP trick to 'change states' is to anchor to something. What represents relaxed and focused to you? Is it a pen? A daytimer? Wearing glasses? Spend a few minutes conjuring up that feeling, and then grab the item. Mentally transfer the feeling to this object. Now that object is your Talisman. Each time you feel focused, or want to feel focused, touch the Talisman. Eventually it will become your thing.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:46 PM on March 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

If your parent is responsive to your need to study could you share your schedule with them? This includes specific times when you study. If that helps you could explain that you often go to the library to study where calls are discouraged. You emphasise that they can and should always call you in emergencies. But could they try to make the non emergency calls outside your scheduled study time? And of course you are available during the non study time. If your parent is supportive of your studies this may help in two ways. You get some firm time slots to study and you minimise the disruption caused by non emergency calls.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:46 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not computer literate at all, can't text message; 80s*. I can work with them to restrict calls to certain times, that's something I can do. Is conflicted & feels guilty about imposing on me; means to be respectful of school obligations -- if I say I am studying or have something due, parent then does not give crucial information in voicemail messages (or even in conversation). So I then have to dig to find out what's really going on (if I've managed to sense something amiss), make more calls, etc. Have asked them to be direct about needs; this has not been so successful so far.

*not that being in your 80s means tech discomfort on its own! But here, yes.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:47 PM on March 24, 2014

take a call, deal with it or make a plan to deal with it, shake it off, move on.

Use physical cues to train yourself. When you get a phone call, get up and walk out of the room, before even answering the phone if you have enough time. When the call ends, take 3 deep breaths, physically shake it off, and say to yourself "OK, time to get back to work" and then walk back into the room.

Just like sleep experts tell you to associate your bedroom with sleep (and not TV, or computer, or anything else), do the same with your studying. If you are on campus studying, take your calls outside, or at least in a building lobby or hallway, and not in the space where you study. If studying at home, do it at the same location all the time (home office, desk, dining table, etc.) and take these phone calls somewhere else - in the kitchen, bathroom, etc.
posted by trivia genius at 2:01 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

My mom is late 70's. I get it. Honest. She knows how to turn a computer off and dust it. She has no plans to change that.

Have you tried initiating calls? Can you call at times when you have a minute "just to check" on them? That might be more effective for making them feel less lonely than "being available." It might help them feel like their company is desired and pursued and might help nip some issues in the bud.

Also, when my (long list of special needs) oldest son was about 9yo, I had a conversation with him where I convinced him to, please, do impose and get your needs met because it's more efficient than not getting them met and then dumping the problem in my lap. It takes less of my time and energy to deal with your needs up front than to wait until the problem is urgent and larger. Can you maybe have that conversation with parent?
posted by Michele in California at 2:07 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound like you're going to be able to change your parent's behavior, but I think you can still get a fair amount of mileage just out of compartmentalizing. Personally, I think it helps if there's a set "transition" thing you do after speaking to the person. Really small, minor things that I do:

I like to blast a particular song or two (usually one that has a super strong beat and is a little "screamy" so it's hard to think when it's blasting).

Visualize a box in your head, put the feelings and thoughts in the box, and lock the box (I like thinking of a big door slamming down, like an airlock in a spaceship). That one is kind of nice because it makes it feel like the thoughts and feelings still exist, so you're not throwing them away or being disrespectful or anything, but you don't have to deal with them right then.

I second physically making the motion of "shaking it off." For some reason, the physical motion helps a lot. Or go on, "brush your shoulders off." If I'm in private, I will literally dance for a song or two, actually.

Something similar to physically brushing it off -- washing your hands. It sounds dumb but it helps!

Sometimes doing something that takes a completely different part of your brain works, too -- in that case, I like to take a minute or two to draw a little sketch.

If you really can't stop thinking of all the things that you need to do for Parent or to solve some problem, you might try writing them down into a list. That might take a little bit more time, but once they're written down it's usually easier to move on for a bit (I guess because your brain doesn't have to worry about forgetting your plan anymore?).

Also, for what it's worth, you have my permission to just "go through the motions." You have to *do* things for Parent, but you don't have to *feel* things for Parent. You can feel whatever the hell you want or nothing at all. When you find yourself going off on some thought spiral, you can just mentally flip off that whole train of thought, flip off Parent, and "do you." You're in a position where you have to be so unselfish on the outside that maybe you're going to have to be extra selfish on the inside right now.
posted by rue72 at 2:27 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this answers your question but I think it's worth putting out there. For what it's worth, I'm a social worker and I know what of I speak.

Our nervous systems only have so much room in them for exposure to secondary trauma and listening to our clients' worries all day everyday is exposure to secondary trauma, even if you don't necessarily feel traumatized at the end of the day. Imagine your capacity for this stuff as a bucket. Occasionally you have to empty the bucket either partially or fully in order to create more room. The most efficient way to empty the bucket is to do regular exercise. It purges our nervous systems of the residual effects of all that stuff we take in every day. When I exercise regularly, I find I am better able to switch back to productivity after one of those phone calls or encounters with a client.

There are ways other than exercise but I think they are less efficient, less accessible or just plain harder to do. Meditation is one option. More frequent sex is another. I'm sure there are dozens of others.

But seriously, try getting your heart rate up once a day if you don't already. It seriously helps me cope with the same problem you've described. And I'm totally NOT a fitness freak. I couldn't care less about my weight. It just helps.
posted by dchrssyr at 6:09 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I drink a lot of coffee and tea, partly for this. I recently switched more to tea to lower the overall caffeine, but any hot drink will do because you are forced to stop, drink the tea and rest for five minutes. It is somehow much more comforting if someone else makes the tea for you and gives it to you because for a few minutes, you are the recipient of warm kindness. Buy really nice tea and a mug with something cheerful on it.

HALT is really helpful as a silly acronym to remind yourself that you may be Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, rather than the world is a terrifying abyss etc. Then you can fix those four things. 80% of the time for me, it's a HALT situation, not a total crisis.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:17 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

These are all really great answers, thanks, everyone. Appreciate the professional worriers chiming in :)
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:10 PM on March 25, 2014

I think preemptive phone calls is a good plan.

Also, you mentioned having siblings in your last post. Can you offload some of the worry and responsibility onto them? Next time you get a phone call from your mum, msg your siblings with the info that she got from you. e.g 'Just talked to Mum, she seems lonely, could you give her a call soon?" or "Mum went to the doctor again, but I couldn't understand what she said he told her. Any ideas?". A problem shared, and all that. And get them to call her more often too.
posted by kjs4 at 5:53 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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