We all get angry. We can’t help it. It’s part of being human.
Yet, as a caregiver, that emotion can become complicated. We might become the undeserved recipients of anger in the moments our loved ones boil over while struggling with incredibly frustrating and debilitating medical conditions. Or perhaps caregiving’s relentless demands might wear down our ability to cope, and we might be the ones who overflow with anger at times. Even if we tend to keep anger at bay, it might simmer underneath the surface and explode when we least expect it.
Too much anger can even impact our health. The emotion increases blood pressure, heart rate, and testosterone levels. Excess bile is secreted, which can hurt the liver, gall bladder, and bladder. Hormone secretions can trigger muscle tension and headaches among other issues. The physical and mental effects of anger contribute to the toil caregiving can take on one’s body and mind.
So what can you do if anger has become a problem? Here are some things to try.
1) Remember—You Are Important Too
For myself, I found that after my husband suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down, angry feelings sometimes erupted from him. I understood these outbursts stemmed from his condition, but I also knew that it wasn’t healthy for me to take the brunt of his feelings. So when his anger emerged, I told him to take a moment to think about things, and then I would step away for a break. When I returned, his anger would have dissipated and we could begin anew. Remember that no matter what is causing your loved one’s angry episodes, it’s okay to take time to care for yourself. You are important too. And alternatively, if you feel anger bubbling up inside yourself, it’s a great idea to take a break and see whether claiming time to go for a walk or just head to the bathroom to place a cool cloth on your face alleviates some of that anger. Enjoying a moment of respite may allow your frustration to dissipate, which is an important way to care for yourself and your loved one too.
2) Gather Your Thoughts
The demands of caregiving can fray the temper of the calmest individual. If you find yourself on edge or regularly falling into anger, then it’s time to reassess your caregiving life and see what you can do to reduce your stress. Sit down and list out your difficulties. Sometimes just seeing everything written out can bring relief. Then take the list, and see which burdens you might be able to share with others. Even though it sometimes may not feel like it, there are people out there who would love to help. Call your state’s Department of Aging to get recommendations. Reach out for assistance to groups like Meals on Wheels or a disease nonprofit, such as the American Cancer Society. Consider your family, friends, local senior center, and religious organizations. Maybe there is an untapped resource that could provide assistance. For example, your local high school might have teens who would love to spend time with your loved one so that you could take a break. Perhaps you could list your needs on a neighborhood app like Nextdoor and find a neighbor who might help. Perhaps a retired person who needs community might relish the chance to help your family and gain connection as a result. There has to be a way to step down your stress so that anger isn’t so close to the surface. Don’t give up until you find it, and give it time. Help won’t be instant. It may take weeks or months to fully arrive, but if you are patient and keep trying, it will arrive.
3) Time Is Your Friend
Anger can hit with the sudden surprise of an earthquake. People often feel an immediate urge to act on that feeling too, which may stem from our long ago past as hunter/gatherers. In those days, anger helped us quickly respond to threats. However, life is different now, and at home while we’re making dinner or preparing a bath, quick bursts of anger aren’t helpful. Instead, it helps to shove a bit of time in between angry feelings and your reaction to them. If possible, instead of spilling out an angry torrent of words, take a moment to simply notice your feelings. Perhaps your first thought might be, “Wow, I’m angry.” And a second thought could be, “What should I do?” The best answer at first may be, “Nothing.” Instead, notice your internal sensations. “My head is hot. My breathing rate has increased. The muscles in my face are tense.” Some people count to 10 to give themselves time to let that initial angry impulse slide past. After a few seconds or a minute has elapsed, it’s easier both to think and to decide what to do. Your brain has reengaged and you can choose whether to express your anger or let it go. If expression is necessary, you can take a moment to consider how to express your feelings with consideration so that you don’t start an anger feedback loop, which only makes things worse. This isn’t easy, but there are resources to help. For example, this nonviolent communication website (https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/) provides resources to begin making strides to change the way you express challenging feelings. Again, try to have patience with the process. It can take time to change entrenched ways of handling anger, and, in the moment, it can take time to choose the best words to share your feelings.
Whatever you do, remember that, due to their disability, your loved one may not be able to manage their anger, but you can affect the way you handle yours and the way you react to theirs. Be patient with yourself. This can be incredibly difficult. You’re doing the best you can, and guilt and shame don’t help. It’s perfectly normal to feel angry, but if you try, you can add more tools to your toolbox, so that anger becomes an emotion that highlights an issue and helps you begin to handle it.
Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and be well! —KK
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