How to Mentally Support a Loved One Battling a Physical Illness
Pain. It’s one of the many things that unifies our race. Pain will be experienced by everyone at some point, but there are some souls for whom the daily struggle with pain and disability severely impacts their quality of life and their independence.
Oftentimes a family member will step up so that the person suffering from these conditions can receive proper care. However, if you’re acting as someone’s carer and not accounting for the mental toll of their disability/illness, then you’re just not doing the whole job.
Although you could do a master of mental health through online study, you don’t need to be a therapist to support someone going through this scenario.
Section 1 – Self Care
It’s important to recognise that caring for someone with a physical disability, or a long or short-term illness, is going to exact a physical and mental toll on you. You will have significant demands on your time, especially during flare ups. So while you’re caring for your loved one, you also need to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself. This will alleviate your stress, and allow you to better support your loved one.
Look After Yourself
Make sure you get some time to unwind during the day. Taking care of someone else means that you have a responsibility to look after yourself as well as you can. If you’re sick or injured, you can’t help the person you care for. Make sure you’re decompressing after demanding days and engaging in hobbies. Have showers, do some light exercise to keep fit and energetic, and sleep as well as you can.
You can not bottle up your feelings. This leads to anger, or worse, resentment. It can be easy to feel shame over these feelings, especially because some thoughts may run away with you. It’s important to remember that these feelings are normal, and feeling them doesn’t make them fact. When your loved one asks “How are you?” be kind, but honest. Yes, you’re a carer, but you need to vent and look after your mental health too, and our loved ones always know when we’re hiding something. It may be worth seeking professional help if you don’t feel like you can vent to the person you care for.
Communicate Your Needs
You are a person with a life, and just because you care for someone doesn’t mean that life stops. Even full-time carers have access to time off, their hobbies, creative endeavours, and work. It’s okay to ask the person you care for if after you sort out their immediate needs you can have some time to yourself, or for a hobby. Or if you’re planning an outing, you can make sure that the needs of the person you care for are met before you go.
Section 2 – Caring For Your Loved One
Depending on the situation, your loved one may need ongoing care, perhaps for the rest of their lives. Mobility issues and the like can be incredibly disheartening to those who suffer from them, and this is where you will have to do a lot of work in mentally supporting them.
Acknowledge, Assure, Affection
The one you care for will need to talk, they will need to instruct, and they will get frustrated. They are suffering. No one wanted to be in the position. They didn’t want to need care, and they didn’t want to impact your life like this. They are dealing with significant feelings of being a burden, feeling useless, and losing independence. When they instruct, acknowledge that they aren’t doing it to be bossy, they’re communicating their needs. When they apologise, remind them that it’s okay and that you want to help them. When they snap at you or break down, meet it with patience, understanding, and affection. Validate their frustration. Love them with the same love that drove you to volunteer to be their carer.
Don’t Wait To Be Asked
Anyone suffering from a disability is likely dealing with the feeling of being a burden. Asking for help, even though they need it, is often difficult even scary, and can impact their mental health. When you’re a carer for someone it’s important to be active. Make note of routines, and physical/emotional queues for certain forms of care, recognise the patterns, and do them on auto-pilot. Don’t make the person you care for ask. Show that you’re willing, eager, and genuinely happy to be helping them. It will mean the world to them.
The person you care for is struggling. They need you. More than just physically, they need you to be there for them. When you come home from work, you decompress for a while. They never come home from work. There is no decompression from this, no break for them. Even if they don’t have a chronic condition and their illness is temporary, they are in pain. They’re in emotional distress. Ask them how they are. Make them feel safe in venting openly. Listen. Acknowledge but don’t say a word. And above all, do not offer solutions. They want support, not saving. There is no being saved from this.
Section 3 – Caring For You Both
Just because one of you needs care doesn’t mean that you can’t look after each other. You’re both people, you’re both subject to the same human weaknesses. You can work through it together.
Get a Therapist
Seeing a therapist together or separately can allow you to work through any thoughts or resentments you may have toward one another as a result of this dynamic. It can also help to build your connection or understand each other better. This situation is likely to be mentally straining for a long time, and there is no shame in getting professional support for both of you.
This is a painful scenario. It’s difficult for everyone involved. The one being cared for feels useless and like a burden. The carer feels like they have no time to themselves and struggles with resentment. Be honest. Be a safe space for each other to talk and work things out. Be understanding and patient with one another. This makes both caring and needing care much easier.
Develop Constructive Communication Patterns
Again, talking. Talking is an effective strategy for solving nearly all problems that arise in this dynamic. If certain modes of speaking don’t work for you, or you don’t like certain words when being given instructions, tell the person you care for a more effective way of delivering those instructions. If the person you’re caring for expresses that they don’t like a certain phrase, then don’t use it. Come together to solve these problems. Lean on each other.
Learn and Grow
Remember, caring for someone is not easy, and that kind of love is honestly miraculous. However, it’s important to never stop learning. Your care is only as effective as the time and energy you put into it, and the person you care for will only feel truly cared for, if you do so in such a way that makes them not feel like a burden. Learn what they need. Grow from every experience. Foster honesty and your connection to this person. And most of all, never forget that you’re here because you love them.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.