Breathe, step away and refocus—you won’t regret it.
- Posted on Feb 25, 2021
Sugar gets you more in life than vinegar. For caregivers, the expression holds some deep truth. As you care for your older loved one—particularly one who has dementia—a positive tone and outlook on your part can be key to smoothing charged interactions and avoiding behavior you may later regret.
Frustration is a common byproduct of the challenging work of caregiving. The pressures of the role can easily lead to exhaustion and anger, and before you know it, you may find yourself lashing out at this person who means the world to you. While certain things, like your loved one’s condition, may be out of your control, it is within your control to defuse frustration and anger before they get the better of you.
Patience can be cultivated.
The following techniques can help you to control your ire before you react in a less-than-hoped-for way to a trying situation with your loved one:
Notice how you’re feeling. Shortness of breath or faster breathing and heart rate, a knot in the throat or the pit of the stomach, chest pains and rising body temperature are some warning signs of frustration. You might even have a desire to strike out at your loved one in the heat of the moment. These are all indications that it’s time to reel it in. Pay attention to what you’re feeling and make a conscious effort to slow down before going any further.
Breathe. Take three (or more) deep breaths. Fill your entire body cavity down into your gut and up through the lungs and head. Exhale slowly and completely. Then count from one to 10. You can do this sitting, standing or lying down. Basic as it is, this simple approach can work amazingly well to take you out of the situation, settle your nerves and stop you from instantly reacting.
Use your hands. This quick and practical method of defusing anger before it boils over is demonstrated here by Marsha M. Linehan, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington’s Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics. Hold your arms down by your sides, palms open outward, fingers slightly curled. If you are sitting, place your hands on your knees the same way. “I learned this from a course I took in spirituality,” Linehan says in the video, posted on the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine’s website. “It turns out it’s really a miracle. It’s very difficult to stay angry with willing hands.”
Step away. Take a time-out if you need to—and if it’s feasible. Excuse yourself and stretch your legs in the fresh air. You might try a walking mindfulness exercise as you do so: Walk slowly 10 to 20 feet in one direction and then turn and walk back to where you started. Focus on the sensations of standing upright and moving to maintain your balance. Removing yourself from a frustrating situation can also mean simply going to a quiet room to listen to music, write in a journal, draw, stretch on a mat or read something inspirational or pray. Call a good friend you can open up to. Or close your eyes and visualize the sights, sounds and smells of a place that makes you calm. You might feel like making a cup of tea and eating a handful of nuts or two; whatever evens you out. Low blood sugar can make you jittery and prone to snapping. Visit the Mayo Clinic for more mindfulness exercises.
Gather your thoughts. Once you’ve calmed down, rethink the situation. Come up with ways to resolve the issue and reduce your frustration. Figure out what you’re really mad about. You may realize that you’ve been spinning negative scenarios beyond the situation at hand—believing that bad things always happen. Maybe you’ve been beating yourself up over things you “should” and “should not” have done. Your anger may be masking grief and fear over the changes in your loved one’s condition. Stay in the present and analyze what just happened. It can be good to write down your feelings. As you acknowledge what’s gotten to you, the negative feelings may begin to diminish.
Empathize. “Our soul desires to be understanding, our ego is only concerned with being understood. When you are being understanding you are connected to your soul.” Take these words of spiritual empowerment teacher Michaiel Bovenes to heart. Shift your perspective by looking at the situation through your loved one’s eyes. Empathy can give you patience. Remember ways that he or she has been patient with you. Don’t forget the golden rule.
Communicate directly. Express any frustrations clearly, using “I” rather than “you” language. For example: “I am frustrated by …” rather than “You did …” or “You always do …” Be assertive but not confrontational. Listen and truly hear what your loved one has to say. Think of all the positive things you have loved about this person over the years. Look into his or her eyes and say you’re sorry if you need to. Then forgive yourself.
Let yourself laugh. Find humor to the situation, if you can. The two of you may end up laughing together. It’s a powerful tension reliever. But avoid sarcasm.
Head off future triggers. Think in advance about things that have led you to grow impatient with your loved one. Figure out how to keep these things from happening again. One effective approach is to ask for things from your loved one rather than demand them. Decide to keep your tone positive moving forward. Work to let go of anger. Dwelling on it can engulf you in bitterness.
Accept help. Exhaustion affects mood so it’s important to incorporate routine exercise and relaxation into your life. To do this, you may need a helping hand. Family members or friends might be willing and able to step in so that you can take breaks. An in-home care aide or healthcare professional can also be a sanity savior, if you are able to hire one. These skilled workers can assist you at regular intervals, giving your loved one gentle care while you take a needed breather and refocus.
It’s important to understand that anger is sometimes warranted and can point to areas where change needs to be made. But if you feel you are expressing anger in unhealthy or out-of-control ways, seek professional help or share your feelings with a support group.