A spiritual answer to the stress of caring

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©Glowimages – model for illustrative purposes only

Stress is not a new concept, but we live in an age which is constantly creating fresh varieties of angst to add to our mental in-tray.

Caring doesn’t sound like it should be one of those in-tray items. Helping family, friends and strangers can often be uplifting.

But when we become ‘carers’ and the demands are persistent, even relentless, then the challenges mount.

As Dr Rob Hicks explains on the website for the current ‘Carer’s Week’: “Carers do an amazing job and are often called the ‘unsung and unpaid heroes of the NHS’. Many, however, find it difficult to ask for help themselves, worrying that by doing so they will be letting down those they care for.”

The theme of Carer’s Week is “Are You Prepared to Care?” To be properly prepared includes a willingness to be aware of stress and to take steps to cope with it. A recent study found caregivers prone to hiding their emotions and stress, which can cause their health to suffer. Almost three quarters of caregivers who do hide their feelings reported fatigue while just over half reported difficulty sleeping, 37% reported depression and 30% experienced weight gain or loss as a result of that stress.

Most of us don’t expect a totally stress-free existence, but what we do about it matters if it is a health hazard. The NHS Choices website urges us to recognise the symptoms early so we can figure out ways of managing them. That will stave off “unhealthy coping methods” such as drinking or smoking.

But how can we do a better job of managing stress? That question exercised Dr Herb Benson, over three decades ago. His early researches convinced the Harvard physician of the importance of the mind-body connection and of the need to roll out a viable mind-body medicine. He developed the relaxation response, “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress”. It is “the opposite of the fight or flightresponse”, an earlier Harvard discovery.

Eleven books and 175 scientific papers later, Dr Benson’s basic idea has not changed. In aninterview he said that “60 to 90 percent of visits to doctors are in the mind-body, stress-related realm”. And these are “poorly treated by any drugs or surgery”.

His stress relief techniques retain “the essence of traditional methods” of prayer and meditation while “removing the religious, sectarian, and culture-specific overlays”. In that way he is “able to use the relaxation response as a therapy in health care settings for people of all backgrounds”.

Others researchers have been digging a little deeper into the surrounding question of whether there is any advantage to actually believing there is a a divine ear listening to those prayers.

A University of Michigan study into “Gratitude Toward God, Stress, and Health in Late Life” found such gratitude made a positive difference, especially in more senior women. “The results revealed that the effects of stress (e.g. living in a deteriorated neighborhood) on health are reduced for older people who feel more grateful to God”.

Gratitude for God can also de-stress men, young people and those who live in pleasant suburbs.

I know that, because I was all three of the above in my early twenties. Yet I went from seriously anxious every time I walked down a city street after dark, to one night being spotted walking in the shadows under a railway bridge across a two-lane highway, because a friend driving past recognised my untroubled gait.

The difference between the two periods was that a spiritual approach to living had caught my attention and I had started to practice it consistently. I found that thinking about the divine – and acting on the impulse that instilled in me to care – not only calmed me when I had time to sit quietly praying but also in the hustle and bustle of work and play in a busy city. Since then I’ve found reduced stress levels to be a daily benefit of what I would call viewing the world through a spiritual lens.

That kind of stress reduction can occur even when our world seems physically constricted as we are faithful to a duty of care – in turn helping to prevent the physical problems stress can trigger.

By the very nature of why carers are doing what they do their own cares can’t easily be lightened.

But perhaps the stress can.

This was first published in honour of Carers Week 2013 on The Huffington Post UK as Stress Reduction for Those “Prepared to Care”

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