Caregivers are known for their stoicism. They get points for being able to “buck it up and suck it up” in our culture. At least that’s what it can feel like. Caregiving is sometimes described as “a duty” and “what you do for a loved one.” We are told to “put the oxygen mask on first” or “take care of yourself,” two versions of the same phrase that make most caregivers I know feel like hurling a blunt object at the person dispensing this advice. 

Whether you’re in a short-term situation with an illness or injury, or nursing someone through a life-threatening or end-of-life situation, caregivers are called upon to be cheerleaders. But we’re also expected to be the quarterback, tackling our loved one’s fears, sorrow, or worries and helping to keep them calm and positive. But the one topic I don’t hear much about, the one thing we caregivers need to be more honest about, is the subject of fear. For me, so much of it came down to the lack of control one has with any illness or outcome. I look back and remember the fear that I was losing myself, of watching the bags under my eyes grow into darker circles. Hair loss, anxiety, acid reflux, lack of sleep are just a few of the side effects I experienced.

Coping with Uncertainty

Augustina Rueda, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York City, works with clients experiencing fear and anxiety. She explains that these spiraling thoughts take caregivers out of the present and into the uncertainty of the future, which is why we  need to separate our feelings from what she calls “the chattering mind.”

“Our bodies message us,” says Rueda, “and it’s important to tune in to that messaging. As our mind lights up with thoughts about the future, it drives us away from the present moment, and disconnects us from ourselves and  others.”

Those feelings and emotions that also make us feel physically powerless end up in areas like shoulders, jaw, and even digestion. “In those moments, it’s helpful to be curious about the body and tune in to where fear is landing,” Rueda explains. “The work is to remind ourselves to be with the ‘what is’ and not think about the ‘what if,’ ” she says.

Grounding Exercises for Caregivers 

Rueda offers a simple process, grounded in our five senses, that can help caregivers step back from the brink of fear when it tries to ambush them. It begins with scanning the physical area where you are, ideally outside in nature:

  • Locate five things you can SEE

  • Find four things you can TOUCH

  • Listen for three things you can HEAR

  • Find two things you can SMELL

  • Locate one thing you can TASTE

This simple practice brings the mind back to the “what is” reality of the world. It also allows caregivers to relax enough to breathe, and deep breathing—getting more oxygen—is one of the best ways to calm the nervous systems and deal with what is in front of us. What I learned was how important it is to have a Plan B. When caregivers can get their arms around the thing that scares them and break it down a bit, it can also wrestle back a sense of some control over the future. Fear may always be a part of caregiving, but having the tools in your kit to fight back is just one more way caregivers can do their best to care for themselves.

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Updated: August 16, 2017