When your family member is in pain, you are suffering, too. The “mirror neurons” in our brains are programmed to recognize pain in others. That’s good news in that it arouses compassion and spurs us to action. But it can be bad news, too. When you are highly attuned to a loved one’s pain, you are at higher risk of depression, burnout, and poor health yourself.
Be aware of your distress as separate from your loved one’s
Those mirror neurons can hijack your emotions. Take a moment to separate your experience from that of your relative:
- What are you feeling? Naming the feelings can help you observe them and diminish their power.
- What is triggering you? Are you remembering a similar episode of your own pain? Do you feel like a bad daughter/son/spouse because you can’t make the pain go away?
- Are your thoughts accurate or constructive? Do what you can to maintain a balanced perspective. Your past pain may or may not be like the pain your relative is feeling. You aren’t responsible for your loved one’s pain. All you can do is your best with the tools at your disposal.
- What do you need to do to come to a calm, centered place? Perhaps it’s some deep breathing. Maybe a walk around the block. Eating something healthy. You are not going to be as effective in alleviating your loved one’s pain if you are distracted by your own distress.
- What can you realistically do to help your relative?
Learn about pain management. Your ability to reduce your relative’s experience of pain will help both of you.
- Report symptoms. Check out the Pain Log hosted by the American Chronic Pain Association, or find the free mobile app at the Apple Store and Google Play.
- Explore nonmedicinal approaches to pain management. Ask about the steps your loved one can take to lessen pain when it occurs and how you can be supportive.
- Learn about medications. Be cautious about potential addiction while at the same time understand that in cases of life-threatening illness, the hazards of narcotics are very different than when pain is caused by chronic conditions.
- Ask the doctor for a palliative care consultation. If your loved one’s pain is related to a life-threatening illness, these specialists can assist with pain control.
Accept what is beyond your power and focus on what you can control.
Some diseases just do cause pain that may not be fully conquered. That said, you can help in other ways and make it a point to keep your own ship afloat so you can continue to provide care over the long haul.
- Emphasize comfort and well-being. Remind yourself, “Today, I may not be able to stop the pain, but I can still [prepare food, massage feet, etc.].”
- Provide distractions. If your family member is engaged in an activity, he or she is less likely to be aware of the pain.
- Take a time out. Be stress free for a while. Do something fun. Guilt is not productive, and being in emotional or physical pain yourself is not going to make your loved one feel any better. When you as the caregiver are refreshed, however, everyone benefits.
- Complete a project. Counteract your feelings of powerlessness by accomplishing something. Think small and simple. Clean out a drawer or bake a loaf of bread.
- Tap into your spiritual/religious beliefs. Make time for prayer or meditation. Listen to a podcast. Sing hymns. Read an inspirational book. Talk with the clergy of your faith community.