Expectancy is a funny thing. It seems the more you focus on a specific outcome, the more attainable that outcome becomes. And nowhere is this mentality more important than it is with regards to improving the quality of life of family caregivers.
I once took a high-performance driving course (don’t ask me why). The instructor drilled into the class that if you lose control of a car and are heading for a wall, “Do not focus on the wall; instead, focus on where you want to go.”
As family caregivers, many situations arise that direct our focus into head-on collisions with walls standing in our way. What’s so hard to remember is that we can choose to focus our thoughts and expectations elsewhere. There is so much that is out of our control; the lab results, the unscheduled doctor appointments, expectations of friends and family and of course that looming wall of fear and uncertainty. No doubt, issues of uncertainty greatly contribute to a depression rate of nearly 35 percent amongst our fellow caregivers.
When faced with so many uncertainties — and let’s be honest, unpleasant situations, exhaustion and never-ending anxiety — it’s easy to fall into a habit of quickly looking to the negative. In a way, expecting the worst can feel protective since it keeps us prepared for the other shoe to drop. The problem is, in most cases, the shoe doesn’t drop, or if it does, it may very well be a different shoe than we had expected. In these situations, we needlessly shoulder a painful burden for weeks, or even months at a time.
Several years ago, one of my family members was confronted with a potentially serious neurological issue. While the possible health problems were significant, there was also the “real” possibility that there was no problem at all. Our neurologist told us that we needed to wait three months (yes, three months) before a follow-up MRI would provide a definitive answer.
Like so many caregivers, my thoughts and expectations spiraled out of control during that endless three-month wait. I pondered every negative scenario, often projecting years into the future. I became emotionally and physically drained.
Many studies suggest that our thoughts create the world in which we live. You may have heard the saying, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” But it isn’t always easy to change negative thought patterns, regardless of the stress and unhappiness they cause.
To complete my story, I will never forget the day the doctor told us that everything was clear. We were elated, of course, but the stress and anxiety I had become accustomed to living with didn’t simply disappear. The cycle of negativity I had endured — and perpetuated — continued after the thrill of the good news wore off since expecting the worst became my default mode of thinking.
Breaking a habit can take some work, but the following four steps helped me gain greater control over my thoughts and expectations…
1. Stop Snowballing
When negative thoughts begin to gain momentum, interrupt the pattern immediately. Think of a big red stop sign and STOP what you’re doing…literally. Take a walk, call a friend, do a chore, close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths, whatever it takes to purposefully stall the downward spiral. You’re in control of what and how you think.
2. Search for Truths
Within every situation, there are certain undeniable truths – obsessing over the uncertainties is often where the dangerous cycle begins. Personally, I like writing down a balanced list of truths surrounding my situation — nothing but the cold hard facts. By making this “reality” checklist, you can start building a better, more manageable story by preventing yourself from jumping ahead to conclusions that are far from foregone.
3. Stay in the Present
Now that you have worked to develop a more realistic understanding of your situation, stay in the present. We have a tendency to shift between reflecting on past experiences and projecting onto future ones. This is something most people struggle with, but as a family caregiver it is critical to stay as present as possible, especially since this is the time you own. NOW is the only definite.
4. Embrace a New Story
You now have a new story for the situation you are dealing with. It is a story that you have built with facts — not fiction — and have developed from a position of strength not weakness. Keep this story close to you and adjust it as new facts arise.
Your thoughts help form your expectations and these four steps will help you build a more productive, realistic mindset allowing you to gain control of how you view your life. Especially when at times you have control over little else.
Help Yourself. Help Others.