How to Stop Engaging in Unhealthy Behaviors to Relieve Caregiver Stress

Stress manifests itself in many ways, including physical and emotional symptoms like irritability, headaches, anxiety, fatigue, and muscle tension. It can also spur us to engage in negative behaviors like overeating, withdrawing from social activities, and drinking alcohol. We know these outlets for stress are not good for us, but we feel almost powerless to stop.

People who are under a lot of strain, like family caregivers, often find it challenging to practice self-care. This is a normal consequence of feeling overworked and underappreciated. But, when one goes beyond skipping regular workouts and also begins subsisting on junk food, it can set a dangerous cycle of self-neglect in motion. For some people, especially those with a history of addiction or an inability to deal with stress constructively, alcohol, drugs, and even gambling may be used as a makeshift escape from the difficult emotions that taxing situations elicit.

Why We Sabotage Our Own Well-Being

Sheila Forman, J.D., Ph.D., CGP, licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Best Diet Begins in Your Mind: Eliminate the Eight Emotional Obstacles to Permanent Weight Loss, says that most harmful habits spring from a person’s inability to respond to difficult situations in a productive way.

The irony of self-destructive behaviors is that we turn to these things to relieve stress and make ourselves feel better, but they usually make us feel worse. Not only will you feel physically crummy after overindulging in food or drink, but you’ll probably end up feeling guilty and disappointed in yourself for not setting boundaries and respecting them. This only causes more tension in your life and will likely cause you to perpetuate this behavior.

Being a family caregiver is challenging enough to make anyone turn to an easy source of comfort. Unfortunately, most immediate stress relievers like alcohol, food, and drugs take a serious toll on the body, especially if they become a regular source of relief. Your mental and physical well-being isn’t just important for you; this also matters to those who love and depend on you. Forming negative habits at such a difficult time will only increase the likelihood that caregivers may develop their own health problems or pass away before their care recipients.

How to Break Self-Destructive Habits

It’s not always easy to recognize and admit our own problems and faults, but doing so is the first step in finding new solutions and embarking on a healthier path. In the same way that we learn bad behaviors, we must also learn how to bring them to a stop. Use the following six steps to work through your unhealthy coping mechanisms and replace them with beneficial activities that will more effectively relieve caregiver stress and anxiety.

Identify Your Unhealthy Habits

Before you can get rid of a harmful habit, you must first be able to recognize it. Habits themselves are neutral, subconscious patterns of behavior that people learn by repeating an action. Once they are formed, these patterns act as neural short-cuts, helping the brain save energy for more complex tasks. With habits, you don’t think—you just do.

Lori Campbell, gerontologist and author of Awaken Your AgePotential: Exploring Chosen Paths of Thrivers, says that a habit should be considered bad if it’s harmful to you or other people. This seemingly simple definition encompasses a wide variety of behaviors from emotional eating to compulsive shopping.

You probably already know what your self-destructive tendencies are. You know you should be exercising regularly, but you don’t. You eat an entire box of cookies in one sitting even though you’ve already had dinner. Perhaps you enjoy a few extra glasses of wine in the evenings. You’re well aware of the fact that these things are only short-term sources of enjoyment, but you still can’t seem to do anything about it. Once you recognize which parts of your routine are detrimental to your health, you need to determine what exactly is causing you to engage in them.

PinPoint the Sources of Your Stress

What is happening in your life at the exact moment that you feel the urge to “misbehave”? These events are called triggers. Keeping a diary for a few days or weeks can help you identify your triggers and their influence on your behavior. For example, every time you feel the need to smoke a cigarette, binge on a bag of chips, or reach for a bottle of vodka, write down what’s going on in your life at that very moment.

Most likely, you will see a pattern emerge. You might find that every time you get a phone call from your sibling asking how your elderly parent is, you reach for a cigarette. It could be that verbal abuse from your husband with Alzheimer’s disease causes you to seek out junk food for comfort. Or you might discover that whenever finances become especially strained, the only solace seems to be alcohol.

Find Alternative Outlets for Stress

Once you have identified your triggers and unhealthy coping mechanisms, you must figure out how to counteract them. Make a list of beneficial coping skills that fit into your schedule and will help you clear your mind and release tension. Examples could be as simple as going for a walk, meditating, calling a friend, taking a bubble bath, or participating in an in-person or online support group.

Campbell stresses the importance of mindfulness in day-to-day life—especially when you’re trying to stop self-destructive behaviors. Practicing self-awareness can help you readily identify looming triggers, mentally prepare for these stressors, and have an alternative coping method ready so you aren’t tempted to give in to your bad habits. You’ll be surprised by how good you feel when you succeed at resisting the urge.

Take Baby Steps

Stress and caregiving share an annoyingly intimate relationship, which can make it especially difficult for people who are caring for aging relatives to maintain a healthy lifestyle and make beneficial changes.

“Stress strips one’s ability to think clearly and stay calm and focused,” Campbell emphasizes. “It becomes a vicious cycle, and it’s hard to break a bad habit when you’re in a compromised, anxiety-filled state of mind.”

Depending on how ingrained your bad behaviors have become in your everyday routine, it may be wise to start slowly when it comes to changing how you cope. Begin by reducing the frequency and severity of your unhealthy reactions to stress rather than trying to go “cold turkey.” Aim to smoke only a few cigarettes, eat a couple of cookies or have one drink rather than going all-in on a binge. Remember, cutting back is still considered progress. Easing into this change will help ensure your efforts are successful and sustainable over the long term.

Experts differ in their estimations of how long it takes to form a new habit. Some say it can happen in as little as three or four weeks, while others say that the road maybe a little longer.

A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that people who wanted to incorporate more healthy behaviors into their daily routines (e.g., eating a piece of fruit with lunch or going for a short run before dinner) required anywhere from 18 to 254 days to do so. It took an average of 66 days of regular adherence to these new habits for them to become second nature.

Forman assures that patience and consistency are the keys to replacing damaging behaviors with healthy ones. Even your most stubborn, long-standing routines can be overcome as long as you remain motivated and persistent.

Eliminate Unnecessary Triggers

There will always be sources of anxiety and tension in life—that is a fact. But, it is important to understand that you do exert some level of control over the stressors you let into your life and you can choose how to react to them.

If your siblings contact you only to criticize how you handle your parent’s care, you can elect to set stricter boundaries regarding communication with them rather than allow them to continually upset and belittle you. If your to-do list is growing exponentially and you feel you have no time or energy to tackle these tasks, opt for respite care to free up some of your schedule or a professional service to take a few “to-dos” off your plate. Even a few extra hours a week can have a positive impact. If you’re approaching or have reached the point of caregiver burnout, it’s crucial to consider other resources like senior housing to provide the care your loved one needs and allow you to reclaim your life.

While they may not be easy or ideal solutions, there are options for minimizing stress in your life. You just have to be honest with yourself about your needs and open to trying new things.

Get Help When You Need It

Engaging in self-destructive behavior is not unusual and it does not make you a bad or flawed person. Most people have some sort of outlet that isn’t considered “wholesome,” and even healthy coping mechanisms can become counterproductive if a person relies on them too heavily. We can learn better ways of coping with what life throws at us, but if we refuse to address our underlying triggers, it will be impossible to achieve a healthy and peaceful mode of existence.

Establishing a support system can help keep you motivated and accountable. You may even be able to shorten the time it takes to adopt healthier habits by associating with like-minded people, such as fellow family caregivers who are taking steps to prioritize their own well-being.

“So many bad habits are socially accepted and people tend to want to ‘fit in’ rather than be healthy,” Campbell admits. “Start hanging around with people that emulate and live out your desired new habit.”

If you’re struggling to minimize stressors in your life and adopt new coping mechanisms, it’s important to seek assistance with your goals. Not everyone can conquer these challenges alone, and there is no shame in getting professional help from a therapist or counselor. Be honest about your feelings and behaviors so you can get the help you need to stop self-destructing and begin nurturing yourself.

Bruce Webb is a Senior Real Estate Specialist (SRES) and has an extensive network of senior-related referrals.

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