Put Your Oxygen Mask on First: The Benefits of Mindfulness for Caregivers

When you’re going through the safety warnings on an airplane, you are always told to put your oxygen mask on first. It’s also a common piece of advice given to caregivers. After all, if the caregiver isn’t healthy, how will they be able to look after someone else?  

It’s no secret that caregivers are at risk of developing mental health issues. It’s estimated that at least 20% of caregivers suffer from depression, which is double the rate of the general population, due to the difficult nature of their role.

One thing that has been shown to have a positive impact on the mental state of these caregivers is mindfulness.

What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program, defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

The purpose of mindfulness is to focus on the present and to avoid dwelling on ruminations about the past or anxious thoughts about the future. It’s about seeing the world for how it is instead of through a clouded lens of negative thoughts and emotions. The focus should be placed on the immediate surroundings and sensations, while simply letting any thoughts and feelings come and go without getting lost in them.

Mindfulness practice can be looked at as a form of meditation. It simply consists of sitting down in a comfortable, quiet area for a set period of time, closing the eyes, and focusing on things like the sounds of the room, the way the body feels, and the way the breath moves in and out. No special equipment is required and even spending 5-10 minutes per day on it can provide benefits. The non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness is essential – it’s important not to worry about “doing it right” or getting frustrated if the mind wanders.

Some may think that the goal is to avoid thoughts, but thinking is part of human nature. Thoughts and feelings will come and go, but it’s important to simply notice them and then let them pass. Attention should be brought back to the body and the breath as soon as the mind has wandered. One also should not try to control the breath, but simply be aware of how it feels to breathe naturally.

A gentle approach is the best way to engage in the practice. By focusing on the present moment rather than past mistakes or future worries, the mind becomes more focused and less stressed. This is especially beneficial for caregivers who suffer from high-stress levels or other psychological issues.

How Can Mindfulness be Useful for Caregivers?

Mindfulness is directly related to the idea of putting your oxygen mask on first. Many caregivers feel stress, depression, anxiety, anger and loneliness on a daily basis. Mindfulness helps caregivers stay in the present so they can manage their negative emotions and build their emotional strength. This, in turn, allows them to care for their loved ones more effectively.

Mindfulness is useful in helping caregivers think and ask questions about the work that they’re doing. Sometimes, caregivers work too hard to provide care to their loved ones and end up working past their limits. This can lead to burnout and other negative consequences.

By being mindful and intentional about the care that’s being provided, caregivers can stop and think about whether they’re overworking themselves, and whether they should slow things down. Trying to do too much may seem like it would be helpful for the loved one, but it ends up hurting them in the long run due to the negative impacts on the caregiver.  

Caregiving can be filled with stress, worry, and regret. Many senior caregivers often wonder what will happen if their loved one’s condition deteriorates, or the potential after-effects of serious medical issues. These ruminations aren’t healthy, and can seriously affect caregivers’ mental health.

Caregivers who practice mindfulness will be able to gain a clearer understanding and acceptance of their loved one’s situation without their personal worries and judgments clouding things. They will be able to be present in the moment with their loved one to care for them without worrying about the future. Mindfulness helps make caregivers better at what they do through a variety of proven benefits to mental health.

How Does Mindfulness Affect Mental Health?

Studies have shown that mindfulness can have a variety of positive psychological effects on mental health. Findings on the effects of mindfulness meditation show that individuals who engage in extensive meditation have increased thickness in parts of the brain responsible for tasks such as attention and sensory processing. Researchers generally agree that mindfulness meditation can improve life satisfaction, emotional regulation, and positive well-being. It can also help in making individuals less reactive to emotional stimuli, whether positive or negative.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques have also been shown to be very effective in producing positive psychological results.  The MBSR program consists of eight weekly classes focused on mindfulness exercises and meditation, as well as daily practice assignments. A variety of trials on MBSR have been carried out and studies have been published on their results. The studies show that MBSR techniques reduce levels of anxiety, depression, anger, rumination, and psychological distress, along with several others. MBSR techniques also improve empathy, forgiveness, and self-compassion, while improving quality of life.

By using mindfulness techniques, caregivers can improve their mental well-being by decreasing feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. They can also improve their attention and emotional processing, which will help them become better caregivers. The best part about mindfulness is that it’s simple, free, and doesn’t require a large time commitment. For something with so many benefits, it’s a wonder that not everyone is doing it.

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