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When Healing Others, Remember to Heal Yourself, Too

November 29, 2012

Taking care of a terminally ill family member or friend can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. A recent article in the New York Times detailed doctors’ lack of mental and emotional self-care when it comes to treating terminally ill patients. Rather than listening and supporting patients, some doctors who feel helpless in the face of critical diagnoses prescribe unnecessary treatments to show they care.

Caregivers don’t have this option, which may only compound the problem. The issue is that both doctors and caregivers are facing is called compassion fatigue, a type of vicarious traumatization that arises from seeing someone close to you suffer. Anyone administering palliative care is probably familiar with the emotional and mental toll it can take. 

Luckily, there is something you can do to combat compassion fatigue and throw yourself fully into caring for your loved one. IIN visiting teacher Dr. Andrew Weil recommends mindful meditation to cultivate mental techniques to reduce stress and limit exhaustion. If you are finding yourself stressed or overwhelmed by the demands of palliative care, sit in a quiet, peaceful place, paying attention to your own breathing. Whenever a thought intrudes on your attention to breath, simply turn your attention back to breath without judgment or frustration. For more tips, check out our guide on how to meditate or get three simple breathing exercises from Dr. Weil.

Dr. Kearney of the Santa Barbara College Hospital highlights the many benefits of meditation for caregivers, including the ability to be more self aware, empathetic and patient focused. Doctors who meditate make fewer errors in treatment and are increasingly rational rather than reactionary when considering treatment options. Caregivers, too, benefit from increasing optimism and calm.

Aim for 30 minutes of meditation each day to see maximum benefits. However, if, like many of us, finding 30 minutes of quiet time seems hilariously impractical, as little as 8-10 minutes can be beneficial. If you can’t imagine when you’d fit even this amount of meditation into your day, consider meditating while on a coffee or snack break, or even while you’re washing your hands. It might not be the quiet, peaceful place where you’ll see optimum benefits, but every little bit helps!

Also, don’t forget the importance of taking a little time out for yourself, whether you take a walk, go for lunch with a friend or take a yoga class once a week. Self-care is exceptionally important when you’re giving so much of yourself to someone else.

Have you ever cared for an ill loved one? How did you cope?