Caregivers, Let’s Talk About Caring for Yourself

As the caregiver of a loved one with chronic pain, you may experience painful emotions like grief, anger, or feeling stuck. Christiane Wolf explores how you can create the space to extend compassion to yourself, while building resilience to meet the challenges you face.

Adobe Stock/ wavebreak3

Suffering from chronic pain isn’t hard for just the person going through it; it’s also a huge challenge for anyone in a close relationship with them. If a close friend or family member has chronic pain, it will naturally have an effect on their emotional state and on your relationship. It will change your relationship. The closer the person is to the pain sufferer, the more strongly they will be affected. If they are both the life partner/close family member and also the caregiver, they may even be hit harder than the person in pain. Studies suggest that the partner of someone with chronic pain who is also the caregiver is even worse off than the one they are taking care of! The pain can affect all areas of their life, just as it does for the person in pain.

When it comes to day-to-day activities, a partner often takes over the previously shared responsibilities, like household chores and childcare. It may be that the sick partner can no longer contribute financially. This leads to a higher workload and less leisure time for the healthy partner and maybe causes them to give up on hobbies. The couple might not be able to travel as much or share other activities they previously enjoyed together. Chronic pain also tends to wreak havoc on a couple’s sex life. Because the sick partner often can’t join (or predict if they will be capable of joining) a social activity, the couple will go out less often and will spend less time with friends. Over time, they’ll be invited to fewer events, as others start to expect that they won’t attend. Isolation is real for both partners—partly because of mere exhaustion and partly because of loyalty on the part of the healthy partner.

Emotions such as sadness, grief, anger, overwhelm, depression, hopelessness, and feeling stuck are often suppressed as the healthy partner feels that they shouldn’t complain, since they’re not the one with chronic pain.

Then there is the emotional burden. Seeing your loved one in so much pain and not being able to help causes many feelings: sadness, grief, anger, overwhelm, depression, hopelessness, and feeling stuck. These are often suppressed as the healthy partner feels that they shouldn’t complain, since they’re not the one with chronic pain. Caregivers who are also life partners have a higher risk of burnout than other caregivers because they’re never able to take a break and get some internal (and external) distance.

Mindfulness and self-compassion can become trusted allies under these circumstances, too. Bringing kind awareness to these complex situations helps us to see more clearly what might be needed to reduce the stress and suffering of the dynamic.

Who Cares for the Caregiver?

All of the ways to work with emotional pain, overwhelm, and the loss of the anticipated present and future are just the same for the loved one as for the one suffering from pain. Self-care is important—even more so for those who are caretakers. All kinds of self-care activities are helpful, especially meditation. Mindfulness (or present-moment awareness) can make other self-care activities—a workout, coffee with a friend, time out in the garden—even more effective and enhance our enjoyment of them by helping us be present and remember them clearly. The problem with self-care, though, is that it takes time. Chances are, with all the extra

responsibilities that a caregiver carries, there won’t be much time—or any time at all—for these wonderful activities. Massages? Nature walks? Dinner with friends? Yoga classes? Going to a game?

By all means do what you can, but know that this is not all you can do. Here is where mindfulness and compassion come in handy: We can practice in any moment during our day, no matter what’s going on. We don’t have to say, “I’ll drive you to urgent care when I come back from yoga.”

Mindfulness is always available, even during caretaking. You can be aware of what’s going on with both your partner and yourself at the same time. You can see both that your partner is in pain and what that does to your own feelings. You can be compassionate with your partner and toward yourself, too. In any moment that feels right, check in with yourself: How are you feeling? How is your body feeling? Is there anything you can do right now to support yourself, like releasing the shoulders or a clenched jaw? Can you offer yourself words of kindness, like “You are doing the best you can,” or acknowledge to yourself how hard this moment is: “This is a difficult moment”?

Mindfulness is always available, even during caretaking. You can be aware of what’s going on with both your partner and yourself at the same time.

Mindfulness allows us to become aware of an emotion instead of pretending we don’t have it and to acknowledge it with compassion: “A part of me feels really frustrated right now” or “There is nothing wrong with feeling the way I feel right now. This is what people feel like in this kind of situation.” You are not disloyal by acknowledging how hard it is on you to follow your loved one’s pain journey. When you take care of yourself in this way, you’ll notice that it becomes easier to keep showing up for your partner.

If you feel your partner’s pain a lot, challenge yourself to consider the following: Is your pain helping your partner?

That’s not to be callous—of course you will be affected by the pain your loved one is in, especially if you are a highly empathic person. But think of a person who is drowning. They don’t need another person crying out in despair and jumping into the pool and drowning with them. They need someone who is compassionate and clear thinking and who will throw them a lifesaver.

Now imagine yourself in the same situation. Would you want your partner to suffer from your pain? Or would that only add to your burden? It