Whether you’re a parent of a child with special needs, a special educator, occupational or physical therapist, it’s safe to say that you expend a tremendous amount of time and a great deal of physical and emotional energy caring for others. When that’s the case, it’s easy to neglect your own needs. Doing so may be more detrimental to your physical and mental health than you realize.
According to the Child Mind Institute, “Studies show that parents of children with developmental, psychiatric or learning disorders are far more likely than others to experience anxiety, depression, insomnia, fatigue and marital problems.”
Furthermore, a British study, on the psychosocial, endocrine and immune consequences of caring for a child with autism or ADHD found parents of children with ADHD and autism who experience chronic stress on a daily basis, are more susceptible to physical maladies.
“This study found that parents of children with either autism or ADHD had significantly higher levels of both cortisol, the stress hormone, and CRP, a biomarker linked to everything from colorectal cancer to diabetes to heart disease,” the Child Mind Institute reports.
Such stressors and the symptoms they cause aren’t limited to parents of children with ADHD and autism. Indeed, most parents of children with special needs are negatively affected by chronic stress and its symptoms.
Likewise, special education teachers and therapists are also at a higher risk for stress-related health problems which when severe can create a condition known as “compassion fatigue.”
According to Good Therapy.com, “Compassion fatigue can be a serious occupational hazard for those in any kind of helping profession, with a majority of those in the field reporting experiencing at least some degree of it in their lives. This is no surprise, as it is typically those with the most empathy who are the most at risk.”
Says Good Therapy.com, the symptoms of compassion fatigue may include, physical and emotional exhaustion, irritability, hypersensitivity, lack of empathy, anger, guilt, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, weight loss, and career dissatisfaction.
Fortunately, much can be done to prevent and manage caregivers’ stress. Here are some tips that may relieve stress-related symptoms and/or compassion fatigue in the New Year.
Step 1: Check in with yourself, mentally and physically
As family or professional caregivers, our lives can be so busy it may be hard to find the time or energy to know how we’re feeling. If we don’t check in with ourselves to determine if we are hungry, tired, angry, depressed or anxious, we won’t be able to take steps to remedy the situation.
“Think of the mindful check-in as taking a scan of the internal weather you’re experiencing: noticing physical sensations, your state of mind and any thoughts that are arising, and any emotions that are present,” suggests Bob Stahl of Mindful.org.
Step 2: Take (guilt-free) time for yourself
It may seem like even ten minutes to yourself is too much to spare, but without carving out the time, you’ll be no good for your special needs child, students, clients or anyone else. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re the only one who can care for your child, clients or students. Yet even if they have complex medical needs, with the proper training and precautions, most likely there’s a friend, family member or professional who’s up to the task.
So, designate a date-night or Girls’ Night Out. Leave work on time for a change and take the vacation time to which you’re entitled. Find something that brings you joy—whether that’s making art or music, doing yoga, cooking, reading mysteries or binge-watching your favorite TV series—and give yourself permission to engage fully.
Step 3: Find a support group
Parents, siblings, educators and therapists who care for children with special needs can all benefit from having a place to share their feelings about caregiving with others who can identify. Involvement in a support group or (for professionals), a peer supervision group can do wonders for caregivers’ state of mind. You’ll remember you’re not alone, that others have experienced some of the same feelings you have, and you may also pick up valuable tips and resource recommendations. If you’re really lucky, support groups can lead to strong friendships for you and play-dates for your child.
Step 4: Take good care
We know it’s easier said than done, but healthy eating, sleeping and exercise will improve mood, prevent medical problems and enable you to better manage the challenges of having a child or working with children with disabilities.
“Health is a balancing act between health liabilities and health assets,” says Dr. Leonaura Rhodes, writing for the Expert Beacon. “Reduce health liabilities, which are things that are bad for your health, including poor diet, inactivity, smoking, spending time with toxic people and avoiding medical care for health problems. Health assets should be increased with healthy diet, good hydration, positive thinking, good sleep and having fun and nurturing yourself.”
Step 5: Seek out help
Don’t be afraid to find support if you’re feeling sad, anxious or overwhelmed. A phone call or coffee date with a good friend or family member may be sufficient. Yet, seeing a therapist or counselor is also a good alternative.