Color & Control:

Is stress contagious?

By Dr. Elaine Dembe

A psychological effect known as emotional contagion, stress is indeed a condition that can be caught from others. Here’s a bit of a roadmap to help you stay as stress free as possible along the way.

Research has revealed that it is possible to “catch” the emotions of someone else…a family member, a fellow worker, a son or daughter and yes, someone who you are responsible for as a caregiver. Experts suggest that pass-along stress occurs when the mirror neurons in our brain are activated by a difficult situation that is occurring. These neurons allow us to empathize and, at times, understand and feel what others are feeling. 

Know the risks
This is precisely why caregivers are some of the most at risk individuals and need all the help they can get to stay cool, calm and collected. After all the angst of living and sharing daily life with loved ones who are unwell, struggling with difficult tests and diagnoses, pain or end of life losses, is not easy to ignore or turn away from. In fact, it’s all encompassing, sometimes for extended periods.

In fact, just observing someone who is ill can have an immediate effect on one’s nervous system triggering elevated levels of Cortisol from the Sympathetic “fight or flight” system. Scientists suggest that chronically high levels of Cortisol have been proven to cause high blood pressure, sleep disorders, lowered immunity, digestive issues, muscle tension and pain, weight gain, impaired cognitive function and many more health issues.

Be aware and shield
STEP 1: Be conscious of how insidiously stress creeps in to make a caregiver more fatigued, anxious, depressed, burned out and potentially unwell themselves. 

STEP 2: Learn to “shield” yourself from “catching” the tide of negative emotions that float around your caregiving circumstances. Simply put, self-care and building up your resilience have been shown to be your best bet. So, try to visualize a boundary. Visualization is a helpful way to not “take on” other people’s emotions. Imagine there’s a glass shield between you and the other person where their reactions cannot negatively affect you. Another way of doing the same thing… “zip up” energetically.  Place your hand at the bottom of your stomach, then draw an imaginary line up your body to the top of your head as if you were zipping up a coat. Protective shield up for now. Unzip when you’re ready.

STEP 3: Check in with yourself during the day by asking.” How am I feeling right now?” The next question that follows is “what do I need to do to maintain my energy, sanity, and positive outlook?” The answer might be a nap 2) get outside in the fresh air 3) eat something healthy 4) exhale 5) call a friend. Or all of the above.

Find a diversion
According to family physician, Dr. Jocelyn Charles from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, “Caregivers cannot be there 100%. They need to have some interests beyond their caregiving responsibilities.” Her wise advice, “a caregiver must find someone to take over the care to allow them to get away.”

Here are more “get away” ideas that will take your mind off the challenges for a short while and help you focus on nourishing your mind and body.

Plan a daily uplift. Where is the joy in your life? Is it found in nature? A pet? A latte with cream? Sitting in the sun? Listening to music? We don’t need much to be happy. Life can be celebrated in small meaningful ways. Include an activity that elevates your mood and mindset.

Mindful gardening. Tending to a garden can be therapeutic. Caregivers can connect with nature and find solace in nurturing plants or growing a vegetable garden.

Art Therapy and Craft Projects. Explore various art and craft activities like knitting, painting or making jewelry. Or, in a more structured way, join a group or take individual session activities like painting, sculpture or crafting. It can be a great creative outlet for emotional expression and stress reduction.

Forest bathing. This practice involves immersing yourself—and taking a long quiet walk in a forest environment. Sitting for a while is good too. Nature is healing and is said to clear one’s mind and let the stress slip away, even if only for
a little while.

The magic of music. Learn to play a musical instrument, sing in a choir (or in the shower) or simply create a playlist of your favourite music. Music can be a powerful mood enhancer for both caregiver and loved ones.

Engage in mindfulness. Attend a mindfulness or meditation retreat to deepen your self-awareness and develop relaxation techniques. Or try a yogic breathing exercise called Humming Bee Breathing—it’s a long slow exhale that’s taken while you hum. The act of humming is said to stimulate the vagus nerve which controls the entire relaxation system. Try it right now. You will feel instant calm with 4-5 rounds of humming bee breathing.

Virtual museum tours. Explore the world’s museums and art galleries through virtual tours available online. You can appreciate art and culture from the comfort of your home. In addition, there are excellent podcasts on every topic imaginable. If you enjoy learning, Yale, Harvard and other top universities offer online programs. It’s a great way
to learn, be entertained and find inspiration

Reading and book clubs. Get lost in a good book or join a virtual book club to discuss literature with others. Even a quick flip of the pages of a magazine will divert your attention for a short while. 

Plan a spa and “me” day. Book a massage, have a mani-pedi, get your hair cut, buy some new make-up and a bottle of bubble bath. Take a supportive positive girlfriend with you and enjoy lunch together.

Exercise! I would be remiss if I didn’t end with the benefits of exercise for mind and body! There is nothing better to improve your mood, self-esteem and energy level.

There are online trainers, or set up a treadmill in your home. Or join a gym and plan to be there at least twice a week. Swimming is also very therapeutic.

Back to Dr. Charles who reminds us that, “if the relationship is built on love, mutual respect and trust, it will be easier to navigate the challenges for both the caregiver and the person being cared for which will reduce the stress. However, if the relationship has deteriorated over time, the caregiver may feel resentment and stress.” 

She goes on to talk about balance and using empathy as a way to reflect back emotions to show that you understand. “There will be an imbalance if one spouse doesn’t trust the suggestions, advice and care of the partner. Caregivers can sometimes push their own agenda on the person needing care. If one person is trying to control the other and making too many demands, it doesn’t work.  

To reduce the stress of caregiving, “it really takes flexibility, trust, respect and working together as a team. To be successful, you must both be willing to discuss and adapt to change and be ready to prepare for next steps in a way that’s good for both of you.  

Dr. Elaine Dembe is a health and wellness practitioner in private practice for 45 years in Toronto. She is a Chiropractor and the author of 3 best-selling books.

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