Caring for Caregivers: Learning to Listen to Your Body

Psychologist Dr. Rick Wirtz describes the "red flags" caregivers should look for as they monitor their own health.

By Dr. Rick Wirtz

Today I met with the spouse of a man who has a degenerative movement disorder. The man’s condition has become considerably worse over the past 8 to 10 months after being relatively stable for some time. There is no cure for this disorder and few medications that have any beneficial impact. I met with the spouse because the patient believed that there were signs of increasing frustration on the part of his wife.

As we talked very candidly about how things had been going and what toll this was taking on her she denied feeling tired or frustrated or troubled except when her husband was obviously feeling frustrated by his diminished abilities. When asked about feelings of anger or fear, she denied these as well, but went on to report how her blood pressure seemed to rise significantly when her husband was upset. Interestingly, she did not seem to make the connection between her blood pressure and any emotional state that she was aware of.

What is illustrated here is the disconnect between what is being experienced internally and the person’s subjective awareness of it. In some cases, certain feelings can be experienced as unacceptable to the extent that the person may not identify or wish to admit to having them. However, the body often betrays their wish to hide what they are feeling and in actuality probably does them a “favor” by sending an outward signal that may be detected by others. For the observant friend, family member, or doctor this may be the “red flag” that brings their attention to the suffering of the care giver and leads them to talk to that person about how the caregiving experience is affecting them. Other frequently seen “red flags” are changes in sleeping patterns (i.e. trouble falling asleep, restless / fitful sleep, etc.), changes in appetite, irritability, reduced immunity to colds or physical conditions, forgetfulness, and increased alcohol intake, to mention just a few.

If you are a caregiver and have noticed any of these in yourself you would do well to take stock of what you have been going through lately and focus some attention on the feelings that you have been experiencing. These are likely to be signals of a need to talk to family, friends, or trusted confidants, and to make some changes in the role you play as caregiver.

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