self-care for caregivers

In honor of National Family Caregivers Month, this week’s Self-care Sunday installment focuses on the power of art as a way to help caregivers take care of themselves. Self-care for caregivers is vitally important to helping us thrive during our self-care journey and come out stronger on the other end. Last week’s article addressed the need for mental self-care during caregiving seasons.

An Unusual Gift

Most of the gifts that poured in to our home during Pedro’s illness were all about him. Someone gave him a PlayStation. People brought food to tempt his appetite. They brought flowers and plants to keep the walls from closing in. I got it; I understood all of those gifts and appreciated them so very much.

At some point during his illness (I lost track of time, and sometimes even where our kids were), our friend (and chaplain at the local hospital) showed up with a gift for ME. Shocked, I mumbled, “Oh, you really shouldn’t have!” as I opened the gift bag.

“You’ll need this,” she assured me.

I don’t know what I anticipated, but I know my blank face must have mirrored my confusion when I pulled out a book on watercolor painting and a set of paints.

“You mentioned wanting to learn to paint,” she reminded me.

I searched my brain for when I may have shared this dream with her, and came up blank. But by this stage of caregiving I had already started to experience chemo-brain by proxy (also known as caregiver stress-related forgetfulness).

I hugged her, thanked her with a cheery smile, and turned the conversation to something else. My usual coping mechanism when my memory failed me with increasing regularity.

The book and watercolors ended up holding my dresser down for years. Each time I saw them, I shook my head a little at my friend’s extravagant gift. Who had time for learning to watercolor paint when one’s husband circled the drain?

Seasons of Caregiving

I entered my season of cancer caregiving right as our daughters had gained new levels of self-sufficiency. They did their own laundry, made their own lunches, kept their rooms tidy, and knew the rudiments of cooking. Pedro and I worked full time, so the girls made an important contribution to the household.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t developed good self-care habits when our girls were young. When I got out of the house, I usually defaulted to retail therapy. I rarely stretched my mind with learning new skills. Losing weight and deepening my spiritual life could wait until things settled down after our recent move.

Those bad self-care habits only worsened during the year of cancer. Caregiving felt like wandering through a stress-filled haze with a giant dose of denial. I wrote in my journal in fits and starts—usually when I felt at the end of my abilities to cope. Support groups for cancer caregivers didn’t exist (or maybe they did, and no one bothered to tell me). I had no healthy outlets for the tremendous barrage of stress that assaulted me on a daily basis.

power of art

Taking care of my artistic and academic needs fell to the bottom of my priority list—unless you counted researching chemo combinations and stem-cell transplant statistics. I quickly assimilated a cancer-as-a-second language vocabulary that allowed me to sound intelligent whilst conversing with specialists.

Exercise? Dashing to catch elevators and speed-walking between airport terminals counted, right? Healthy eating? Managing to eat three times a day stretched my powers of self-care. It didn’t matter what I ate.

My spiritual life felt strong-ish. Tossing prayers at God and gulping down a Bible verse on the go probably didn’t count as strong spiritual self-care habits.

By the time Pedro finally came home from the hospital, I was a mess.

Power of Art to Heal through Flow

It took me about eight years to recover from Pedro’s cancer. In retrospect, I wonder if leaving those watercolor paints on the dresser had been such a smart move. What I desperately needed during that season of life was the ability to enter into flow.

You may have heard of flow before—some people describe it as the subliminal place where time seems to stop as you work to create something. Gioia Chilton, in an article for Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, says that “In flow people are often so engrossed that they are not aware of their emotional state until the activity is almost complete and positive feelings such as joy or pride emerge.”

Art (and I don’t mean just painting or drawing, but rather any creative expression) acts as a powerful medium through which we can experience positive emotions that we then store up. We can access those positive emotions during times of stress. Since I hadn’t nourished my creativity on a regular basis (who has time for creative projects whilst working full-time and caring for a family), I had little to draw on during my times of great stress.

Because I stopped all artistic endeavors during my caregiving season, I had cut off a valuable means of making sense of the chaos around me.

Chilton goes on to say that, “The execution of artistic behavior provides access to information that the brain retains but which cannot come to consciousness any other way.” The success of art therapy proves the power of art to heal.

If I would have pulled out the watercolors and dabbled, perhaps I would have healed more quickly from the stresses of caregiving. Instead, it took five years and a photography class to find flow.

The Importance of Self-care for Caregivers (and EveryoneElse, too)

When I entered my second season of caregiving, this time for our daughter as she struggled with an undiagnosed mental health problem, I had learned my lesson. I had discovered the importance of nurturing my creativity through photography. The stress of not knowing how to help our daughter had the potential to drown me. But this time, it didn’t.

I journaled on a daily basis. When I felt the pressure building up, I would escape to photograph birds, flowers, bugs, or scenery—anything to enter the flow of creativity. This time, I maintained my exercise routine and consciously avoided comfort eating. My long conversations with God kept me centered and focused on learning to trust him, even if I didn’t understand.

In October, while camping with our students in Zion National Park, I finally tried my hand at watercolor painting. My colleague and the school’s art teacher showed me the rudiments of what to do and set me loose. I stared at a beautiful vista, trying to interpret it on heavy paper with pigment and water. Snatches of conversation from students and tourists wafted around me.

“Time to head back to camp,” the teacher announced, startling me.

“Already?” I glanced at my watch. Sure enough, our two hours had flown by. I snapped a few photos and resolved that I wouldn’t let another fifteen years go by before I try watercolor painting again.

God and Art

God created us in his image. As a creative being, he created us to need the outlet of creativity. When we recognize that need and develop our creativity, we honor him. And by honoring him, we gift ourselves with the power of art to heal and soothe the things we find difficult to express with words.

Regardless of your season in life, you can care for yourself by exploring and discovering ways to use your creativity to enter a state of flow.

God created us to be creative. When we develop our creativity, we honor him. #art #caregiving #NationalFamilyCaregiversMonth Click To Tweet

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  1. I don’t often think about how much power there is behind doing something creative to relax and reinvigorate, Anita. I’m glad you’ve encouraged us to do this. It’s something I think anyone–caregiver or not–can benefit from! I’ll be pinning, my friend!

  2. Art & craft therapy is an extremely useful Diversional Therapy tool…not only for Care givers but for those in all types of Chronic health conditions, high stress jobs, the aged, children of all ages & abilities ;-).

    It helps us to slow down long enough to be able to contemplate & create artistically & spiritually which is very important for our weary soul. It plays an important part in restoring it!
    Tea With Jennifer recently posted…Waiting in the meantime…My Profile

  3. I am cringing a little as I type this out. I feel like I don’t have an ounce of creativity but I know that isn’t true. I would need the pain by number kind of painting.

    I preach about self-care, but I do not always do the best with it. I did, however, exercise today in an effort to do a little of what is good for me.

    Yes, you are right we do need to take good care of ourselves. It is hard but so important. Thank you for the reminder.
    Maree Dee recently posted…Life After War: A Soldier’s Journey Back Home – Guest Post by Liz PeklerMy Profile

  4. I understand the importance of self-care while caregiving. My writing was a saving grace during the time I cared for my dad. But the idea of art (painting) is so cool. My own creativity doesn’t stop at writing so I understand how important other outlets can be. Thanks for your wisdom.

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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