If I hear anything consistently from my clients, it is that they are exhausted. It isn’t always from the physical labor of caring for the people in their lives, sometimes it is just from the emotional work of always being “on” – a hypervigilant state.
Hypervigilance is the persistence of increased alertness or enhanced situational-awareness, where the individual is constantly assessing potential threats in their surroundings. Soldiers suffer from it; worried mothers suffer from it and caregivers suffer from it because we’re all on “high alert” waiting for the other shoe to fall and the next dreadful event to occur. It is that sense of being constantly watching, in an effort to prevent the danger that is just around the corner. It takes a serious toll on our wellbeing!
The hypervigilant state of caregiving takes a toll in several ways. It can erode your sleep (you wake up with every real or imagined noise – especially those sounds coming from the person whose needs you tend to). Hypervigilance can send a cascade of chemicals coursing through your body, including cortisol – which can impact multiple body systems including digestion (weight management) blood pressure, and even increase the amount of generalized inflammation your body endures – altering your sense of wellbeing, making you ill.
What’s a caregiver to do?
First, recognize the symptoms. They often fall into four types, Emotional, Behavioral, Physical, and Interpersonal…
- emotional outbursts
- fearing the worst without an obvious cause
- feeling overwhelmed in crowded or noisy places
- overreacting to stimuli or to those around you, compared with what’s usual for you
- persistent worry
- heightened awareness of surroundings
- hyperekplexia (intense startle response)
- inability to focus on what’s in front of you
- scanning the room for suspicious behavior, weapons, or dangers
- difficulty sleeping
- enlarged pupils
- increased heart rate
- quick breathing
- avoiding social interaction
- taking things personally
- focusing intently on people’s expressions or tone of voice
- friction in relationships at home, work, or school
If you see any of these in yourself, it’s time to make a change. You don’t have to exhibit ALL of the symptoms to know that hypervigilance is becoming a problem for you – just a few of them are enough to let you know, it is time to take action – it is time to focus on self-care!
Self-care is definitely your way out of hypervigilance – noticing what it is doing to you and realizing that some of if is self-imposed, unrealistic, and unnecessary.
I know that for me, realizing that I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when no shoes were dropping around me, woke me up to my self-imposed distress. This allowed me to relax and realize, I was NOT in charge of the whole world. I was not the sole-protector of my loved-one and, sometimes, scary things would happen, but we’d be okay, because I could handle whatever might come. That was an important awakening!
With that realization, I could make better choices, including letting go of some of the anxiety that naturally accompanies being responsible for someone else’s care and wellbeing. I had to take care of myself in order to be of any real assistance to him (my husband).
It is hard to be a caregiver. . .
…and all too often, no one knows what you’re going through emotionally or physically – others may want to help but don’t know how, don’t have time, or just don’t see what you need or how to be of assistance.
Here’s three things you can do to make your needs known:
- Tell the supportive people in your life what would be helpful – and be specific!
- Realize that even when you ask for help, it may not come when or how you need it!
- Find your sense of “enough” – that balance point that assures you that you’ve given your best, without depleting yourself beyond healthy limits – that sacrifice is just too great!
I coach caregivers all the time and, if you’re struggling to find that balance of giving and getting in the daily effort you put forward in the care of someone else, it is time to get some help! Change is possible. Joy is available. The future does not need to feel bleak or discouraging. I can help!
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