Responding mindfully to changes in health

Learn how families can cultivate mindfulness to help accept chronic disease diagnoses and caregiving roles and what national resources are available for caregivers.

A woman staring mindfully out a window.
Photo: Unsplash/Cheron James.

The pathway to caregiving can be a long journey or a surprise out of the blue. No matter what the path, hearing about a chronic health disease diagnosis that a loved one has, or learning that they can no longer take care of themselves as they used to, is difficult for the individual and their family.

There are national and community organizations that can be helpful to caregivers. Resources include The Family Caregiver AllianceNational Alliance for Caregiving and the National Family Caregivers Association. If your family is waiting for a diagnosis or has recently received one, remember that there are several supportive responses you can choose when responding to this new diagnosis or caregiver role.

One approach that helps people manage psychological (emotional) and physiological (physical) illnesses, diseases or grief is to cultivate a daily practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a stress-management practice that involves conditioning the mind to accept things how they are non-judgmentally by slowing down the nervous system. Practicing mindfulness slows the nervous system by developing an awareness of the body’s psychological and physiological reactions to sensory stimulation. Think of mindfulness as a physical activity to strengthen your nervous system (the brain), just the way running develops and strengthens your cardiovascular system (the heart).

The foundation of mindfulness is to focus or notice what is happening in the present moment non-judgmentally. The core practice of mindfulness is practicing “mindful” breathing. Mindful breath is the practice of focusing solely on your breathing. Paying attention to the rhythm of your body breathing naturally slows down your nervous system and your cardiovascular system. This also quiets the mind so it can problem solve and think clearer. Think of mindful breathing as the “pause button.” Mindful breathing can help anyone get through stressful moments through the practice of recognition, acceptance, shifting and practicing.

Keep in mind there can be a sense of loss and grieving experienced by individuals following a diagnosis or in taking on a caregiver role. The grieving process can be a weight mentally and physically. Mindfulness may help you and others respond rather than react and can help all move more gently through change.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources to caregivers. MSU Extension offers mindfulness programming such as Stress Less with Mindfulness as well as Caring for the Caregiver and Powerful Tools for Caregivers that can provide caregivers support and helpful strategies and tips. 

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