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Restoring Calm and Clarity: A Daily Plan for Caregivers

For most of us, living life at a frenetic pace and the resulting lack of clarity are facts of life. But when you add caring for a loved one after a stroke, the deck is stacked even higher against us: A crazy schedule, wrecked routine, blown diet, and the emotional tension of trying to navigate intense family time and high expectations all can decimate our calm and focus.

It’s no wonder we blow up—or blow things off. “That kind of brain fog is frequently an avoidance response,” says holistic psychologist Doris Jeanette, founder of The Center for New Psychology in Philadelphia. “All of that anxiety and striving leaves us overloaded. Feeling anxious is uncomfortable, so instead, you go into a brain fog; you subconsciously forget or avoid or offload things. It’s a place where you don’t have to be responsible for what you’re doing.”

The key to getting past the anxious, disconnected state? “We need to resolve the root issues, not deny them,” says Jeannette. In other words, say yes to keeping a healthy routine and no to mental and emotional overload—and be assertive about it.

To keep you on track, we’ve put together a daily action plan with specific, manageable strategies that’ll help you stay calm and clearheaded during times of intense demands and stress.

Morning:

Ditch the coffee. Too much caffeine makes you irritable, but dropping it cold turkey can make you cranky too. When things get hectic, swap in a cup of green tea—you’ll still get a hit of caffeine, but with the calming effect of L-theanine; studies show that this amino acid found in tea leaves reduces anxiety levels.

Have a brain- and mood-boosting breakfast. A combination of fiber and protein is the way go says Manuel Vallarta, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, with a private practice in San Francisco. “A perfect breakfast? I always recommend steel cut oats with blueberries and kefir,” he says. The oats are filling and a great source of energy. Blueberries are good for memory function, and boast 40 times more potent antioxidants than any other fruit. Kefir offers a shot of protein, which stokes your metabolism and keeps you energized.

Middle of the day:

Avoid being frazzled by “screensuck.”  “This is one of the most prevalent culprits in multitasking,” says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy (Random House, 2006). “We’re just staring at a phone or computer, poking at it....It’s like keeping a jar of M&Ms on your desk. You can’t leave it alone.” Multitasking may seem unavoidable, but your brain simply can’t do two things at once; it merely switches between them at lightening speed. In a state of constant interruption, you’re bound to miss something important, so periodically turn away from you computer (or relegate it to a workspace), stow phones in a purse or briefcase, and flick off the TV when it’s just on for background noise.

Get clear about what you want. Compliments from your sister-in-law, a shared workload with your Dad, siblings who don’t regress into their childhood roles...If you want it, imagine it. According to holistic psychologist Doris Jeanette, the way to stay clear-headed and tackle emotional family issues is to take some time to get in touch with your feelings and what you do want—and then be assertive about getting it. “The core of the work we need to do is to step out of being reactive and resistant,” says Jeanette. If you don’t want to act as the shuttle driver or meal maker or medical liaison, acknowledge that, then opt out for your own reason—not to get back at your sister because she never offers to do those things. Take a few minutes in your day for some relaxation, and use imagery to help you feel your way to how you’d like your caregiving role to be.

Afternoon:

Take five outside. A recent study from the U.K. found that as little as five minutes of “green exercise”—a walk, exercise in a park, or puttering around in the garden—improves well being and decreases the chance of mental illness.

Have a “happy” snack to beat stress.“We face stress all day, whether it’s running late, a nasty e-mail, a forgotten appointment...these constant ‘attacks’ deplete the hormones serotonin and dopamine, which leave us feeling low,” says Vallarta. Choose a comfort food to soothe cravings, and make sure it has both carbohydrates and proteins. “This is not the time of day to reach for carrot sticks,” says Vallarta. “They aren’t satisfying and won’t help you boost your mood.” Instead, opt for a more-satisfying cheese quesadilla; the protein in the cheese and carbs in the tortilla will help rebuild serotonin and dopamine levels.

If you can squeeze in a workout, do it. It’s tempting to skip when things get this busy, but according to John Ratey, M.D., author of Sparks: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), exercise helps regulate mood by elevating endorphins and raising dopamine levels. It also tackles anxiety and stress by increasing blood flow to the brain and a providing boost in protective neurochemicals. And you’ll feel less inclined to overindulge on sweets and alcohol, because elevated dopamine levels help the brain’s ability to feel satisfied.

Evening:

Set aside time to be unavailable. That badgered, harried feeling can make us feel frantic and worn out. “We think being available means we’re doing right by people,” says Hallowell, “but it comes at a cost.” Instead, retrain the people in your life who demand your time. Don’t answer work e-mails at night. Say no to interruptions during family dinner. Turn off the phone when you’re spending time with your partner. “Once people know how available you are, they will accept that and stop protesting,” Hallowell says.

Calm yourself for sleep. Stress—from a job, or relationships, or impossibly high expectations—creates an inability to switch off at night, and lack of sleep makes us irritable, emotional, and unable to think clearly. “I tell my patients to take five take five minutes every few hours to calm yourself, breathe, and bring the buzz down,” says Catherine Darley, M.D., founder of the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine. Another tip? Jotting thoughts down in a sleep diary can help you track what sets you off vs. sets you up for a good night’s rest.

By: Stroke-Network.com Staff Writer Cara McDonald

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"A crazy schedule, wrecked routine, blown diet, and the emotional tension of trying to navigate intense family time and high expectations all can decimate our calm and focus. It’s no wonder we blow up—or blow things off. "
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