I took a walk today. While that may seem unremarkable, and indeed it is, it was significant, symbolic even, to me. Walks are how I recover from stressful times.
If you read my last post, you know life has been stressful for my father and me. He’s been bouncing around from facility to facility, his dementia is progressing rapidly, and I feel like I am watching him disappear at the same time I am grieving for my Dad who once was.
This is not my first rodeo. I have been through trying and sad times as a caregiver before. And one of my caregiver superpowers is my ability to adapt to “the new normal” pretty quickly. Caregiving is fluid; nothing remains the same for too long. Caregiving is a roller coaster and I have learned to ride the ups and the downs. Each time my father and I enter a new phase, I acknowledge that this is the new normal, I accept it, and I adapt. I adapt my routines, my schedule, our relationship, and my expectations.
But over the last two months, I’ve been struggling to find normal. These last two months have been like the Kingda Ka of caregiving. It is hard to find normal when your parent isn’t settled. Perhaps a more worthy super heroine could accept uncertainty as her normal, but I am not that advanced.
After a series of hospital and rehab stints, I moved my father out of assisted living and into a nursing home – and, wow, did we luck out. The staff is fantastic at the new facility. The situation wasn’t ideal – my father preferred his apartment and clearly he was on the decline, but it was the new normal and I began to adapt. But then he was sent back to the hospital where he stayed for two weeks. I hate that hospital and I spent every day that he was there working on plans to get him out. I could not find normal. I did not feel normal. (And yes, my speech patterns started to resemble Rowan Pope.)
I felt stress, despair, exhaustion. But now he is out! He is back in the nursing home, and I took a walk. And that walk tells me I have entered my butterfly phase.
After every time my life goes out of whack, something eventually shifts and I enter my butterfly phase. One day, I go for a walk. And then I do it again the next day. I replace my fourth cup of coffee with a glass of water. I shower, and, I even blow-dry my hair. And like the caterpillar that disappears into the chrysalis and eventually breaks out as a butterfly, stronger and more beautiful, I too, always reemerge, better for my experience.
Stress is a given for caregivers – there’s really no way around it. So it’s critical that we learn to recover from it; that we learn to be the butterfly. While it feels like my butterfly phase is something that happens to me, it is actually something I make happen. Here’s how you can create your butterfly phase:
- Celebrate small acts of progress. Blow drying my hair may not seem like a monumental task, but when my to do list is overflowing and I feel like anxiety has me super-glued to my sofa, the mere act of getting dressed to go visit my father, or go to work can be overwhelming. So when I actually make the effort to look presentable, I know I am getting my strength back, and I celebrate that tiny win. Recognize any effort, no matter how small, on your road to recovery.
- Move. According to the Mayo Clinic, “virtually any form of exercise… can act as a stress reliever.” If you’re feeling flattened by stress and a true sweat is just too much effort to muster, take a walk. Even 10 minutes will start you down a positive path. Don’t think, just go. And the next day, do it again.
- Smile. It may be the last thing you feel like doing, but studies have shown that the mere act of smiling can make you feel better. While we don’t recommend forcing a grin with chopsticks, we have tested the fake smile theory and it works! If you’re worried that all you can muster is a grimace, try this at home alone – and not in front of the mirror.
- Accept the new normal. You may not like where life has landed you and the person you care for, but the sooner you accept your circumstances, the sooner, you can adapt to them. Go ahead and grieve for what was; grieving leads to acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you stop missing what was. Acceptance doesn’t mean you necessarily like the phase you are in. What it does mean is that you acknowledge where you are and you create a plan for this phase of caregiving. It means you stop resisting and start acting and that will reduce the stress you feel.
- Identify what you have gained. It is so easy to identify what caregiving takes from us. But it’s also important to recognize what we gain from it. Are you more resourceful? More resilient? Wiser? More patient? What makes you stronger and more beautiful, like a butterfly?
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