Caring for the Carers

Over lockdown I have been delighted to have been involved with both Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and Caring Breaks in delivering a number of Zoom trainings sessions.  We have all had to get used to this new way of keeping in contact and both organisations have been innovative in finding ways to continue to support carers and their families and friends during the pandemic.

Carers of all ages who provide support for a family member or friend make a massive difference not only to the people they care for, they also make a huge contribution to the NI economy, never more so than over the course of the current pandemic when many support services such as day centres and short breaks have been reduced or closed.

Carers week takes place in June each year; the theme for 2020 was Making Caring Visible and I provided a mindfulness session for carers as part of the week’s events.

The sessions continued with the delivery of a couple of 4 week Building Resilience courses, one for carers from Belfast Trust and another for carers from Caring Breaks. Feedback from both courses was positive; one carer said it was ‘one of the best courses she has ever been on’; it’s always great to receive such positive feedback.   In January I delivered a Reboot and Restore session for Belfast Trust carers looking at some ways that we could approach those new year changes in a different way from the usual short-lived ‘new year resolution’ approach.

Below is the piece I wrote for the Belfast Trust Carers November 2020 Newsletter that contains a review of some of the top tips from the Building Resilience course in August.

Week 1 set the scene by looking at how resiliency encompasses our mental, social, physical and emotional wellbeing and each session focused on one of those areas. In week one we looked at our mental wellbeing and on how having that positive mindset is a key factor in being resilient.

ResilienceOur emotional centre, the primitive ‘caveman’ part of our brain is primed to keep us safe. It is always on the lookout for danger, so it is wired for negativity, however we can turn that around if we focus on the positive things in our lives.

Participants were invited to get a notebook and write down a few good things that happened each day. It’s funny how we only remember the problems we encounter isn’t it!?  This simple exercise helps to retrain our brain to look for positives and it’s also good to have those notes to look back on to remind us that things aren’t all bad!  Everyone was encouraged to set a small goal each week, something important to them, perhaps something that they had been putting off as they let other things or other people take priority. Why? Well, the big focus throughout the weeks was on activating the ‘Happy Chemicals’ that lovely group of neurotransmitters that keep us all functioning well.

Week 2 looked at emotional well-being and some simple coping strategies to help us manage stress.  Carers learned how the fight, flight and freeze response can be triggered, often without us being aware that it is happening, filling our ‘stress buckets’ and causing us to react to situations in an unhelpful way. Negative thinking – brooding over the past or thinking about what could go wrong in the future can set us off on that stress cycle and we practiced some simple relaxation and mindfulness techniques to keep us balanced and ‘in the moment’.  Try this one! Saying the word ‘CALM’ to yourself and, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, scan each of the four areas for muscle tension and then just let that tension go.

The CALM Exercise

Chest:  Relax your chest/torso – let it sink back into the chair

Arms:  Let your arms and shoulders relax, rest your hands in your lap

Legs:  Uncross your legs, let them relax, have your feet on the floor

Mouth:  Relax your jaw, allow your mouth to open slightly

Week 3 was about our physical wellbeing and we looked at the importance of keeping active and having a healthy diet. We learned about some simple techniques to change those habits that may see us piling on a few pounds – like the biscuit (or 2!) with our cup of coffee.

Sleep plays a key part in our physical and mental wellbeing; we looked at the stages of sleep and how the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of our sleep cycle is so important to us for laying down memories and sorting out some of the stresses of the day. Check out for tips on a better night’s sleep.

Week 4 looked at the importance of our social connections and support networks for our overall social wellbeing. The World Health Organisation defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ and during this pandemic it is that social contact with friends and family members that we are all missing so much. We have all had to learn new skills like Zoom and Facetime etc and while online contact may not be the same and we may miss that element of human touch (remember oxytocin – one of our happiness chemicals) it’s important to try to get over any discomfort you may have and keep connected!

Please remember that if you care for a family member or friend support is always there for you, just contact the Care Coordinator in your local Health Trust.