Kinship carers are often dealing with many difficult issues. Sources of stress can include problematic family relationships, money worries, juggling work with childcare, caring for an elderly relative, and looking after a child with a disability or challenging behaviour.
In difficult family circumstances, it’s understandable if you focus all your attention, energy and resources on the children you’re looking after and sometimes on their parents too. But you need to recognise that it’s equally important to pay attention to your own needs and to look after yourself. If you’re stressed out or depressed it will be harder for you to respond to the children’s needs.
Too much or prolonged stress can lead to physical problems such as heart attacks, or mental illness such as depression. It is important that we manage our stress to keep it at a healthy level and prevent it from doing long term damage to our bodies and minds.
Managing stress, anxiety and depression
Try to recognise when stress is causing you a problem. You need to make the connection between feeling tired or ill with the pressures you are faced with. Do not ignore physical warnings such as tense muscles, over-tiredness, headaches or migraines. Other common signs of stress include loss of appetite, sleeping problems and difficulty concentrating.
You can reduce the effects of stress by being more conscious of the things that cause it, and learning to handle them better, using relaxation techniques as well as other lifestyle changes.
You might feel under pressure because you have too much to do, too much on your mind or other people making unreasonable demands on you. Striking a balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is vital in reducing stress levels.
The following tips can help you to look after yourself, deal with pressure and gain a broader perspective on your difficulties.
- Have a change of scene. Even a short walk can make a big difference in how you feel. Try to focus on what is happening around you, rather than thinking about your worries.
- At the end of each day, sit back and reflect on what you’ve achieved that day or what you appreciate in life, rather than spending time worrying about problems or what still needs to be done. Notice and appreciate good things around you every day, big or small.
- Develop a hobby or interest – an activity that uses your brain in a completely different way from your everyday work and looking after the children can be a great release. It can also be a good way to make new friends. This could start with something small, such as cooking a new meal or visiting a local place of interest.
- Make time for your friends and partner, if you have one. Talking to them about your day and the things you find difficult can help you keep things in perspective – and you can do the same for them. When you take on the care of a child, it can be hard to maintain relationships with friends and this can make you feel isolated. Local support groups for kinship carers can be very helpful, so check to see if there is one in your area. Our peer support network can help people feel less isolated, and our Someone Like Me volunteers provide emotional support and a listening ear.
- Make time for regular leisure activities. This can help to release tension and to take your mind off the worries of the day. Whether you unwind by soaking in a hot bath, browsing through your favourite books, listening to music, gardening or photography, the important point is to enjoy the activity, purely for itself, and take your mind off whatever is causing you stress.
- Practise being straightforward and assertive in communicating with others. If other people are making unrealistic or unreasonable demands on you, be prepared to tell them how you feel and to say no. (see the Impact Factory website for tips on assertiveness.)
- Review your lifestyle. Are you taking on too much? Are there things you are doing which could be handed over to someone else? You may need to prioritise things you are trying to achieve and re-organise your life so that you are not trying to do everything at once.
- Try to accept things you can’t change. It isn’t always possible to change the things you don’t like or find difficult, but you can try and change your own attitude to them so you don’t build up feelings of resentment or start taking your feelings out on others.
Learning to relax
If you notice you are becoming stressed, try to relax your muscles and calm yourself down by slow, deep breathing. Start by taking a deep breath, hold this for a count of three and then slowly breathe out. Continue this slow breathing until you feel more relaxed and then go on with what you were doing.
See the Mind website for information on relaxation techniques and exercises.
Mindfulness can be helpful for managing and reducing the symptoms of stress. It is an approach to wellbeing that involves accepting life and living ‘in the moment’. This includes paying attention to the present moment and taking time to see what is happening around you in a non-judgemental way, rather than focusing on what you are trying to get done and going over your problems again and again. It involves being aware of each thought, feeling or sensation that comes to you and accepting it.
Mindfulness can be helpful in stopping ruminations over things that cause stress; it helps people keep from dwelling on negative thoughts. Mindfulness can also be used to decrease anxiety over the future. It can provide a break from stressful thoughts and allow you to gain perspective.
Mindfulness can be achieved through meditation, but you can also practice mindfulness through daily living. Gardening, listening to music and even cleaning the house can become a practice in mindfulness if you take the right approach: focus on the present, and quiet that voice inside – the one that offers the running commentary on what you’re doing, what you’ve done, and what you will be doing. Click here for some mindfulness exercises you can try.
For more information on mindfulness visit the Mental Health Foundation’s bemindful website. The website also features a specially developed online course (which costs £30) and details of courses around the country. Your GP may be able to refer you for mindfulness-based therapy which can be effective for treating depression and anxiety.
As long as it is not done to excess, exercise is important for reducing stress levels and preventing some of its damaging effects on the body. It’s also helpful for managing anxiety and depression.
Exercise helps to use up the hormones that the body produces under stress and relaxes the muscles. It will also help to strengthen the heart and improve blood circulation. Physical activity stimulates the body to release endorphins – natural brain chemicals that give you a sense of wellbeing – and can also help to raise self-esteem and reduce anxiety and depression.
Exercise does not need to be sporty or competitive; you can benefit simply by becoming more active, as part of your daily routine. Walking or cycling rather than taking the car or bus, or climbing the stairs rather than using the lift, can help a lot.
When you feel under stress, it’s often easy to forget about eating well. But what you eat, and when you eat, can make a big difference in how you feel and how well you cope. It’s important to make time for regular food or snacks and not to miss out on meals, such as breakfast. Try not to rush; take time to enjoy what you’re eating.
The key to a healthy diet is a variety of different types of food, with a balance of protein, carbohydrate, healthy fats and fibre, including plenty of fruit and vegetables.
When you are tired and stressed you may want a quick sugar rush, but this will leave you feeling tired again later. It’s important to keep a steady blood sugar level – if you can, try to eat things that are digested more slowly and give you a steady supply of energy.
Find more information about how your diet can affect your mental and emotional health here.
If possible, try to cut right down on smoking and drinking. They may seem to reduce tension, but in fact, they can make problems worse. They can put you at more risk of physical consequences of stress because of the damage done to the body. You may also find it helpful to reduce the amount of coffee you are drinking as the effects of caffeine on the body can be very similar to the effects of stress and anxiety.
When to ask for help
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you feel that your mood has been low for or a while or that you are no longer able to manage things on your own. Many people feel reluctant to seek help as they feel that it is an admission of failure. This is not the case and it is important to get help as soon as possible so you can begin to get better.
The first person to approach is your GP. They may suggest other coping techniques for you to try or recommend some form of counselling. Cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness based approaches are known to reduce stress.
There are also a number of voluntary organisations which can help you to tackle the causes of stress and advise you about ways to get better – see below.
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Sources of further information and help
Action for Happiness
Action for Happiness is a movement for positive social change. Its website lists ’10 keys to happier living’ – practical ways to increase your wellbeing.
Mental Health Foundation website raising awareness of mindfulness, including details of local and online mindfulness courses.
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
Tel: 01455 883 300
For information about counselling and therapy and to find practitioners in your area.
Mental Health Foundation
As well as lots of useful information about mental health, the website also has free podcasts on wellbeing and managing stress.
Very informative website including a ‘Mental Health A-Z ‘, advice on reducing anxiety and managing depression, tips on dealing with stress and information on relaxation techniques.
A comprehensive health information website which helps you make choices about your health, from decisions about your lifestyle, such as smoking, drinking and exercise, to finding and using NHS services in England. The site includes a ‘live well’ section covering over 100 topics on healthy living.
Helpline: 0844 967 4848 open every day 10am-10pm
A charity providing help and support for people suffering from panic attacks, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders and other related anxiety disorders.
Offers confidential emotional support to children, young adults and adults on any issue. SupportLine works with callers to develop healthy, positive coping strategies, an inner feeling of strength and increased self-esteem.