Tuesday, 3 November 2015

CAREGIVER STRESS - How to Call It and Slay It

Right now I'm in Toronto at the annual conference of the Ontario Association of Children's Treatment Services. I'm learning valuable lessons for ALL caregivers and of course I had to share them here. Today, Sonia Lupien, the Director the Centre for Studies on Human Stress revealed to me how stress works and how it's possible to understand and control it.

According to Dr. Lupien, there are four basic triggers for all stress and an easy way to remember them is with the acronym NUTS.  Stress triggers are either Novel, Unpredictable, a Threat to the ego, Sense of little control. Our early human evolutionary history programmed us to react to the threat of the woolly mammoth.  Sensing that our life is in danger, we instinctively react by fighting or fleeing.  Either way, our body is flooded with energy boosting hormones.  The problem with many caregivers is that we are often in a state of stress - ready to fight or flee - even when our lives are not actually in danger. This persistent state of heightened hormonal stress response doesn't serve us well and it can actually make us sick, especially over time.

So, how can we begin to control our stress response and rule it, rather than be victim to our extreme emotions day after day?  Dr. Lupien explains her strategy for calming our hearts and minds here:

Dr. Lupien's research reveals the secrets of what strategies work to alleviate stress.  One calming element is social support, but the surprising finding is that GIVING someone else social support is even more beneficial to stressed out caregivers than receiving it.  Fleeing instead of fighting sometimes works to alleviate stress - removing yourself from situations that cause stress can be beneficial, even if it's for a short break to pause and reflect.  But if you chronically flee, that can be a problem. Deconstructing and reconstructing... understanding nature of the stressor and then consciously locating a strategy to deal with it is in itself a calming process. 

The second type of stress alleviation is the 'quick fix'.  Deep breathing, laughing, exercising and especially singing all work to lower pulse, blood pressure, cortisol levels (or stress response) and increase a feeling of overall wellbeing.  One study revealed that singing in a choir not only reduced stress but boosted singers' immune systems as well. 

But stress isn't only bad for us, it's bad for our loved ones too.  When we are stressed, our negative emotions literally spill over to flood those we love. That's one good reason to take a time out if possible, when anxiety and feelings of helplessness threaten to overwhelm. 

Another effective stress-busting technique I learned about at this conference is mindful meditation.  That will be the topic of my next post, so stay tuned. 

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