By Luciana Mitzkun, Family Services Director –
Stress is bad for all of us. Stress is particularly bad for you, if you are caring for a loved one with dementia. Many caregivers notice when they themselves become affected with loss of memory, and they wonder about it: Is dementia contagious? Definitely not, but the stress associated with caregiving may be what is behind their memory loss and other possible cognitive symptoms. Stress can also accelerate the speed with which those symptoms appear.
Our nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol as a natural response to stress. Often called stress hormones because of their connection to the stress response, adrenaline and cortisol trigger fast changes in some body functions in response to the stressor event: accelerated heart beats, elevated blood pressure, boosted glucose levels in the bloodstream, and muscle contractions. Once the stressor is gone the body returns to normal.
That is how our bodies are designed to react to acute, fast-resolving, momentary stressors, such as when someone cuts in at the grocery store checkout line, or finding that the milk has spoiled as you pour the cereal into your bowl. Your body reacts, you solve the problem, the stressor is gone, and your body returns to normal.
It so happens that our lives are subjected to far much more stress than of the acute kind. We are often bombarded with long-lasting stressful events: We have bills to pay, events to organize, traffic to negotiate, and family demands to attend. Our bodies’ natural stress-response is meant to react to isolated acute stressors, not chronic or repeated stressors. Chronic stressors make our bodies release stress-hormones on a continuous basis, producing effects that our body systems are not designed to sustain on a long-term basis.
The body’s response to chronic stress has been linked to a large number of diseases and disorders, including: depression, anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, immune system disturbances that increase susceptibility to infections, such as the common cold and herpes, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, as well as certain cancers. Importantly, it can also contribute to insomnia and the progression of degenerative neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
You have all the reasons to want to live as stress-free a life as possible.
But caring for a loved one with memory loss is stressful in itself. You must be extra vigilant to counteract the effects of dementia and adapt your life to accommodate changes related to your loved one’s memory loss. You are overloaded with tasks, juggling appointments, and medical and financial issues. You may feel distressed by the present; you may worry about the future. All these changes burden you with additional stress, and you cannot afford to develop memory loss yourself!
Stress is insidious. Some additional symptoms you may be experiencing, and possibly attributing to your busy schedule, may actually be symptoms of chronic stress.
According the American Institute of Stress, these are some of the possible symptoms of chronic stress:
Frequent headaches, jaw clenching or pain
Gritting, grinding teeth
Stuttering or stammering
Tremors, trembling of lips, hands
Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms
Lightheadedness, faintness, dizziness
Frequent blushing, sweating
Cold or sweaty hands, feet
Dry mouth, problems swallowing
Frequent colds, infections, herpes sores
Rashes, itching, hives, goose bumps
Unexplained or frequent allergy attacks
Heartburn, stomach pain, nausea
Excess belching, flatulence
Constipation, diarrhea, loss of control
Difficulty breathing, frequent sighing
Sudden attacks of life- threatening panic
Chest pain, palpitations, rapid pulse
Diminished sexual desire or performance
Excess anxiety, worry, guilt, nervousness
Increased anger, frustration, hostility
Depression, frequent or wild mood swings
Increased or decreased appetite
Insomnia, nightmares, disturbing dreams
Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts
Trouble learning new information
Forgetfulness, disorganization, confusion
Difficulty in making decisions
Feeling overloaded or overwhelmed
Frequent crying spells or suicidal thoughts
Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness
Little interest in appearance, punctuality
Nervous habits, fidgeting, feet tapping
Increased frustration, irritability, edginess
Overreaction to petty annoyances
Increased number of minor accidents
Obsessive or compulsive behavior
Reduced work efficiency or productivity
Rapid or mumbled speech
Problems in communication, sharing
Social withdrawal and isolation
Constant tiredness, weakness, fatigue
Frequent use of over-the-counter drugs
Weight gain or loss without diet
Increased smoking, alcohol, or drug use
Excessive gambling or impulse buying
There is no pill that can reduce levels of stress hormones in your body or totally eliminate stress. Instead, you can adopt habits or strategies to reduce stressor events and help increase your resilience to stress.
You may not be able to completely eliminate the stressor that caregiving itself represents. However, by adopting a few stress-relieving strategies, you can attenuate some of its harmful effects on your health.
Whether you notice any of the above symptoms or not, adopting strategies to increase your resilience to stress will help you stay healthier and give you more energy to conduct your caregiving responsibilities, as well as your own life.
Resilience- Building Strategies
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for building resilience to stress. You will need to find what works for you. You may have to try different ideas, or practice what you already know works for you with more frequency.
Some people use breathing techniques. Others turn to spiritual practices. Some take yoga classes, meditation, or tai-chi. There is value in every one of these strategies, as long as it works for you as an individual.
Your personal strategy to increase resilience to stress could be as simple as turning off the news. You can start by picking an activity you enjoy:
snuggle with someone you love
get a massage
breathe deep, slow-down, or take breaks between tasks
start a hobby
pet a dog
read a novel
go for a walk or hike outdoors
Hitting the pause button in any way that will remind you of the joy of living will work wonders!
Consider using the respite services provided by the Friendship Center to relieve you from the worry and the tasks of caregiving on weekdays. The time your loved one spends at our centers is filled with fun and healthy activities. While he enjoys a variety of programs and finds new friends at the day center, you can take the time to unwind and pursue the stress-relieving technique of your choice.
Keep stress in perspective and slow down. Take time to enjoy yourself and appreciate the good things in your life. Laugh, play, and enjoy the company of friends and family. Do not let life circumstances (or world affairs for that matter) take the joy from your life. Your health and your longevity depend on it!