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How to step away and feel better

Looking after someone else, day in and day out can be rewarding but overwhelming. With so much going on we may feel we lack the personal space (mentally and physically) that we all need as humans, to help us thrive.

Illustration of person meditating

When we start to feel our energy flagging or experience anxiety, overwhelm, resentment or brain fog, these are clear signs that we may need to step back and take a break - hopefully before we reach carer burnout. But how?


It’s not just the practical task of finding time, care cover, money and energy to step away. It’s also the emotional strength required to make a positive change. Or the difficult conversations we may need to have.


Here, we explore why this happens and how we can create the space we need and deserve, to best support our own wellbeing:


Why we can feel trapped, when we’re looking after someone


When there’s a lot going on, we can easily start to feel ‘stuck’ or ‘trapped’ in our situation. Words like “relentless” and “groundhog day” are mentioned. Many of us talk about losing that sense of freedom, our own personal space or the ability to simply step away when we need to.


Caring for someone else can be hard work, and the responsibility of doing everything (often around our own family or work commitments), can lead us to feel stressed and unhappy. Especially if we’re dealing with the decline of someone’s health too.


There are many different things that can cause or add to carers feeling trapped:


  • Physical fatigue: from physically and emotionally taxing care work.

  • Lack of our own space: especially if we’ve moved in to help provide round-the-clock care and/or have paid care workers in our home.

  • Needing to be available all the time: even if we don’t live with the person we care for, we may need to be near the phone and on-call in case of emergencies.

  • Time constraints: appointments and visits with our caring work might eat into our free time.

  • Financial issues: the cost of caring might impact what we can spend on ourselves.

  • Mourning a past life or lost future: we may miss our old routines and freedoms or wish for ones that we’ve never been afforded, known as a carer’s grief.

  • Guilt: we may feel we don’t deserve time away, especially if the person we’re caring for needs us 24/7. How can we moan, when they’re dealing with their illness or disability?

  • Low mood or depression may prevent us from making positive changes.


Whether we’re faced with just one or several of the things on this list, it can be really hard to carve out time for our own needs. This becomes tougher when we’re physically exhausted or emotionally overwhelmed by the situation.


In this scenario, it’s all too easy to keep our heads down and continue overworking. This might genuinely feel like the right thing to do. After all, making a change can simply feel like “more hard work”.


What happens when we don’t get space

The problem with pushing through our exhaustion is that we can reach carer burnout. Caused by a prolonged or chronic period of stress and can leave us feeling tired, helpless and defeated. It’s a serious and legitimate health issue.


In an ideal world, home is a place we can retreat to, to rest and relax. Studies have found the psychological importance of having a calm and clutter-free space for our mood, mental wellbeing and overall life satisfaction. One study found that people who had more physical clutter in their homes reported higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.


Research also suggests that increased clutter can make us procrastinate on tasks, struggle to focus and argue with loved ones.


A lack of space may not be down to physical objects, but having few opportunities for private time away from the person we care for. It’s normal to feel agitated when we’re with the same person 24/7.


Whether physical or emotional, space is so important for replenishment. When we don’t have a buffer zone set up, it can sometimes lead to us lashing out at the person we care for. Even if we have good intentions to be patient and kind, we can find ourselves getting irritated and annoyed when we lack the solitude we need.


While taking space is primarily for us, it can benefit everyone. Time away (whether in the house or outdoors) isn't just for physical replenishment but the emotional motivation to carry on.


There’s no shame in acknowledging that we need to find some distance from caring and that without it, we’re unable to provide the assistance the person we care for deserves.


Karen’s story: from burnout to balance

“I care for my mum, who had a major stroke during the height of the pandemic. After her accident, she was in the hospital for about six months. I moved in to look after her when she was discharged.


I was living 100 miles away at the time, but I sold my house when Mum fell ill. It was just too difficult to keep two households running with so much distance between them.


Now I’m living in Mum’s spare bedroom like a 14-year-old again, except I have all the responsibilities, and I don’t walk around slamming doors anymore!


Mum lives in a bungalow, so there’s very little personal space. She’s paralysed on her right side and double-incontinent, so has personal care needs. She has carers over four times a day to help. It’s hard to get privacy as the carers are outside of my door first thing in the morning and there at night too.


Like most carers, I had a few meltdowns at the start of my caring journey. I was overwhelmed and always wondering if I’d done the right thing. I’d worry about what would come next. My life is very different now from how it used to be.


Mum’s incontinence limits what we can do and where we can go. We have to be home at certain times of the day for the carers to change her. I’m also mindful that I don’t want to put Mum in a situation that will impact her dignity. Plus, with Mum’s personal care needs, there’s always a pile of washing for me to get through each day, alongside all the cooking, cleaning and entertaining.


When Mum came home from the hospital, I didn’t know what I was doing and felt like I had no support whatsoever. I just remember feeling lost and overwhelmed. I wasn’t sleeping, and I was crying all the time.


On my birthday, I went for a beach walk with my partner, who still lives near my old house. Even though the weather was foul, I spontaneously decided to get in the water. I waded out into the sea, and as the cold waves hit my body, I instantly felt better. All of my problems were still there, but they lined themselves up, in order, in my mind. I could work out what I needed to prioritise and what I could let go of for now. It took away that sense of panic, dread and complete overwhelm.


I found someone in my local area that plans organised wild swims and have been joining them for weekly dips ever since. I’m lucky that I can leave Mum alone for a few hours with the piano or TV to entertain her while I go wild swimming. It can mean jigging around our schedule, as I make sure she’s had her breakfast and lunch before I pop out.


I need to be back for carers, too, so I always time it around her needs. It’s just a couple of hours in my week, but it makes such a difference to my mental health. It’s so cold in the water that it completely clears my mind of all worry. I leave with a sense of euphoria and peace.”


How to step away and feel replenished

Whether we have a few minutes or a few hours available, we’ve collected ideas from other people who are caring, on how we can step back, reset and get back to our best. So take a moment to click on the kettle, and settle down with a cuppa and hopefully feel seen and inspired to make a positive change in your own life.


Before diving in, it can be helpful to consider the following:


1. Notice what we need

When it comes to stepping away, everyone’s needs are different, so it’s helpful to think about what kind of activities are practical and realistic for us. Including what activities our mind and body need right now.


We may think we need a week off from caring (some respite options are available, although it’s not always easy to get), but just a few moments in the day might be all we need to feel better. We may need time alone, or we may need time to connect with others.


2. Set boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries is the key here. We may need to have difficult conversations with the person we care for. We may also need to ask our wider caring circle to step up and provide extra support. We can do this politely and kindly by being open with our needs.


As the author Brene Brown says: “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” The more precise we are with what we want, the more likely we are to get it. Setting boundaries can be awkward at first, but it is ultimately helpful for everyone. Without our communication, those around us might not realise how much we’re struggling.


For step-by-step tips on how to set boundaries with kindness, we really like this ‘No BS’ advice on having those tricky conversations. We also have some tips in our Impact of unpaid caring guide.


10 ways to step away and feel better

If we’re short on inspiration, here are a variety of ideas inspired by other carers. With options for our available time , our budget, our emotional needs and our carer situation:


1. Start a green project

Gardening is an incredible stress reliever. Not only do we get the visual satisfaction of seeing our hard work blossom into flowers or sprout up as veg, it also counts as our weekly exercise. A study looking at the stress hormone cortisol found that time getting our hands dirty can psychologically help us to feel more relaxed and content.


We really like the RHS website, which has inspiring gardening projects we can do, split up by month. If we don’t have access to a garden, there are plenty of indoor plant projects we can tackle too.


And if the whole garden feels like a big step, what about starting with something small, like growing a herb box or planting some wild flowers in a border.



2. Pick up a home-based hobby

If lockdown taught us anything, it’s that there are hundreds of ways we can get creative, even if we’re stuck at home. Stepping away might mean taking 30 minutes to work on a hobby.


Activities are important as they can act as a type of mindfulness, putting us in a state of hyper-focus that distracts our brains from the stresses of caring. Whether it’s painting, learning the piano, woodwork or gaming, there are lots of new things we can try at home.


Need more inspiration, take a look at:


3. Phone a friend

Friends can be our first port of call when we need to unwind. They can provide advice, support or a bit of light relief when things don’t feel good. That said, we may not always feel understood by our friendship group because they might not relate to our problems.


That’s why we host our Mobilise Cuppas. These are free, 45-minute video calls with other carers where we can get together and chat about what’s on our minds.


“This was my first ever video call, it was easier than I thought and I really enjoyed it”
“These cuppas have been a real life line for me.”



4. Get active

Exercise is one of the best tools we have for beating stress. Raising our heart rate releases feel-good endorphins that can give us a boost when we’re flagging. Most of us will have a local gym, leisure centre or yoga studio near our house.

Illustration of person playing football.

If we can’t get outside, we could try following an online fitness programme. For challenging workouts that are suitable for beginners, we really like the YouTube channels Fitness Blender and The Body Coach.


If we have time each day to relax and stretch, we could even try Yoga With Adriene’s restorative 30-day yoga challenge.


“Yoga with Adriene is just awesome. Her sessions are only about 20 minutes, so I can squeeze them in. She is really encouraging and my mind and body ALWAYS feel better afterwards.”

5. Take micro-respite

Ever heard of micro-respite? These are small moments of wellbeing that we can slot into a busy day. Even if we can only get a few minutes to ourselves, we can prioritise small wins like drinking enough water, listening to a bedtime meditation, writing in a gratitude journal or doing a short breathing exercise.


They might not sound like a big deal, but over time these little actions can help to lower our cortisol and adrenaline levels, and help us to feel less stressed.


6. Order a takeaway

Cooking can take up a huge amount of our time, and then there are the dreaded dishes to contend with too. There’s often pressure to cook every meal from scratch, but it’s OK to cut a few corners when we need it. It’s about picking our battles.

Illustration of person ordering takeaway

Stepping away might be ordering a treat takeaway every so often so we can spend the time soaking in a bath, playing a computer game or relaxing with a film.


7. Join a club

Don’t overlook the power of community. Joining a club can be a sanity-saver if we feel like we’ve lost part of our identity to caring. There are lots of different clubs out there, from outdoor pursuits like running, hiking and cycling to cultural groups.


The website Meetup is a great resource for finding a variety of options in our local area. U3a is a collection of locally-run groups, UK-wide, that host workshops, events and skills-building meetups for people no-longer in full-time work.


We also like The RHS, who have nationwide community gardening projects which a great way to get outdoors and meet other people.


Or, we could join a choir, get involved in some local theatre or start our own film club with our friends (check out IMDB’s 100 greatest movies of all time for inspiration).


It can be helpful to know what good peer support feels like, as the last thing we want is to walk into a space that isn’t supporting our needs.


“I love Beccy Owen's online pop up choirs. A fabulous, fun and friendly group led by a wonderful, warm, talented lass. You are on mute for most of the session - so as long as you remember to close your windows you can belt out a fabulous and varied selection of songs from the privacy of your own sofa! Lifts our spirits!”

8. Get into nature

Research from the University of Exeter has found that time outside in greenery can be a soothing tonic on days when everything is getting on top of us. Researchers found that those who spend just two hours a week walking in green spaces are far more likely to report feeling happier and psychologically well than those who don’t. Whether we go for a beach walk, take a run in the woods or simply sit on a bench in the park, getting our nature fix can have big benefits for our focus, memory, mental health and self-esteem.


9. Have a coffee somewhere new

Spending time indoors, in the same environment, can have a big effect on our mental health. A recent study from King’s College London found that people who were already diagnosed with depression had more severe symptoms when they stayed at home for a two-week period.


If we’ve got an hour or two and we’re struggling to relax amidst the chaos of our home environment, we could spend an hour with a book in a local cafe instead. Often a change of scenery is all it takes to relax and detach from the day’s stresses.

10. Soak up some culture

Whether it’s visiting a local art gallery, seeing a film in the cinema or browsing a bookshop, it can feel really good to immerse ourselves in something new.


At home, we could:


Or, we could make a habit of sticking on our favourite playlist when it’s Friday, and we’ve made it through another week.


The final word

Our world can feel smaller when we’re caring, but it doesn't always have to be that way. We hope we’ve inspired each of us to make a change, take action and try something new.


As always, we would love to hear your advice for stepping away when things feel overwhelming. Make sure to share your carer tips in the Mobilise Community.


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8 commentaires


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Sharon Lindsay
Sharon Lindsay
12 mars

Thank you for the reminder of opportunities to connect and reconnect for our wellbeing. Invaluable.

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yvonne.hancock32
05 févr.

Liz Connor’s piece ( with Karen in the middle) really hit the spot for me.. based in reality while being really motivational to go after the doables.. big thank you 🙏

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