How to cope when someone you love is unwell

Throughout our lives, there will be times when people we love are taken ill, perhaps we have to care for them, or they may even need a stay in hospital. This might be a family member, a partner or friend, or even a beloved animal. When someone we love is unwell, it can be extremely upsetting and distressing for those around them, and we can allow ourselves to be depleted and burnt out, either in caring for them, or in the anxiety and stresses that the situation brings.


Remember your oxygen mask

Many of us will have heard of the idea that we must put on our own oxygen masks first. Just like they tell us when we travel by air, if things go wrong, it is crucially important for each of us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. In other words, we cannot pour from an empty cup: we must look after ourselves in order to support and look after others.

Ensuring that we remain as well as possible while others are struggling can be easier said than done. Often, our first instincts are to forget our own needs entirely and spend time worrying, or endlessly giving to the other who needs it most. This might feel admirable, but in fact both of these are avoidance tactics that can come back to bite us in the end.

We need to make time to slow down and notice what we need, and this will involve recognising our own pain and distress, however difficult that may be. If we can cultivate the self-awareness that we are going through a hard time, and meet it with compassion instead of trying to push our pain away, we will be much better able to cope in both the short and the long term.

Woman drinking from mug

Top tips for coping when someone you love is unwell 

With all that in mind, here are my top tips for self-care when you are in this kind of situation, and for coping with the stress and energy required.

1. Eat well

Many of us would immediately think of how we can help our loved ones by giving them good food to eat, but it is equally important to ensure that we are nourishing ourselves. Firstly, make sure you are eating a good mix of carbs, protein and vegetables so your body has all the basics and give you the energy you need.

It is also important to eat plenty of gut-healthy foods that encourage good bacteria in our stomachs, which aid digestion and the production of serotonin. Yoghurts are an easy fix, and fermented foods are a great idea, so try foods like kimchi, kefir, or drinks such as kombucha. You may also want to increase your B vitamins at this time, with foods such as mushrooms and lentils. A good dahl is fantastic comfort food too!

2. Keep moving

When we are expending energy caring for others, or in worry, we can be tempted to spend any spare time we have in rest mode, slumped on the sofa and watching TV. This is great for a while, but it is also important to get plenty of light exercise into your day. Too much high impact cardio may deplete you of all-important energy, but low impact exercise can be just as fulfilling.

You may want to combine a long walk with some time in nature, such as a park or the woods, taking time to notice the sights and sounds around you and so giving your brain a little time off while your body does the work. Practices such as Qi Gong are also great for getting the circulation going, and giving your body a chance to dissipate all those stress hormones it has been producing. 

Woman in park exercising

3. Breathe!

When you do have a chance to take time out, or at any time you are feeling overwhelmed, use your body’s natural resources and spend time making sure you are breathing well. Breathing is the absolute foundation of well-being, and it’s also something that we forget about easily because it’s automatic. However, spending time making sure you are breathing well can give your mind and body a much needed boost and restore you to balance.

Firstly, make sure that you are breathing into your abdomen rather than up into your chest and shoulders. Take a deep breath in, and use your breath to push your stomach all the way out. It might take a little while for your diaphragm to get used to breathing in this way but it will do, and you will feel much better for it. Another tip is to breathe out for longer than you breathe in. There are a few different techniques you can find easily online, but you might want to try breathing in for four counts and out for six as a starter.

4. Self-compassion

Finally, be kind to yourself. Know that whatever you are doing, you are doing the best that you can in a difficult situation. Avoid comparing yourself to how others are coping, or to an ideal of how you wish you could be. You might want to try some self-compassion exercises or meditations, which you can find online, to reconnect you to yourself and to neutralise any self-criticism you are experiencing.

Finding compassion and empathy for yourself is like being your own best friend: think what you would say to someone else if they were in your shoes. Much of our anxiety comes from a place of pushing ourselves too hard or judging ourselves too harshly.

Whatever is happening for you at the moment, it is so important for you to remember to care for yourself as well as your loved one. You will be better able to cope, and to give them all the love and support that you can. If you find that you are struggling to cope with long-term caring responsibilities, or if your situation feels too overwhelming, counselling can also help to support you and to give you that added space for yourself.  

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Looe PL13 & Bristol BS9
Written by Jodi Pilcher Gordon, MBACP, Online Integrative Counsellor
Looe PL13 & Bristol BS9

Jodi Pilcher Gordon is a qualified registered counsellor and a wellbeing tutor. She specialises in helping clients with anxiety and depression to allow themselves to embrace a more authentic and fulfilling life.

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