Caregivers - This holiday season, give yourself the gift of mindful breathing

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Liz Tassone
Liz Tassone

by Liz Tassone

“Oxygen Mask Descending!”

Every time I travel by air, I am reminded by my flight attendant that, “in the unlikely event of loss of cabin pressure,” I will need to put on my own oxygen mask before helping someone else.

It’s a great reminder for family caregivers. Secure your own oxygen—your own breath—and then you’ll be of most help for your loved one. This sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But we all know it’s much harder to practice. In reality, when we take care of a loved one, we often forget to take care of ourselves.

Consider what’s happening right now. You’re probably sitting down. Somehow you’ve managed to take a moment to read this article. Congratulations! You’ve already given yourself the gift of doing something for yourself. Now, put your hands on your lap and see if you can feel your abdomen rise as you take in a deep breath. Keep your hands there and count to 10. One for the in-breath, two for the out-breath, three for the in-breath, etc. Just 10 breaths. Ahhhhh. I hope you feel better already! You just secured your own oxygen!

“Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D. The best thing about this advice is that we don’t need drugs or equipment or anything at all outside of ourselves to practice it. We need only pay attention to something that’s been with us since birth—our breath.

Breath can be a powerful tool as we take care of our loved ones too. When caring for others, we often operate on “auto-pilot.” We receive a stimulus and respond without even thinking about it. What if, instead, we deliberately put a breath between stimulus and response? Here’s a true story to illustrate the power of such a simple act.

A woman had been taking care of her husband, who had Alzheimer’s disease, for many years. Despite her best efforts, she often got angry with him when he asked the same question over and over. One evening, after a long day of caring for her husband, she was really showing her frustration. After answering the same question repeatedly, she became irritated and angry. She snapped back at him with a nasty reply. But this wasn’t how she wanted to be with him. So, instead, she decided to practice the “mindful breathing” she had read about, and she literally walked outside to get away.

She stood on the side of her house. She had tears in her eyes as she took 10 deep breaths. She calmed herself. She walked back inside the house. Her husband looked at her with delight. “Oh, I am so glad to see you,” he said. “You would not believe the witch who just left!”

Our breath has the power to change us. It has the power to calm us in the middle of a tense and frustrating situation. Practice it for yourself and see if it works for you.

This holiday season, give yourself the gift of breath. Happy holidays!

Liz Tassone is a gerontologist and spiritual director.  Currently, she is a volunteer host for Caring Matters podcast, part of the Caregivers Assistance Network. During her career, she hosted and produced Family Caregiver Hour on WMKV 89.3 FM and worked for Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio as an Information and Referral Coordinator.