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10 ways to prioritise ourselves every day as unpaid carers

Jill is a parent carer from Camden and was a member of the team at Camden Carers from 2008 until 2021. Here, Jill talks us through carer burnout - how to stop it , how to heal and how to reduce the chance of it happening. We can read Jill’s own caring story here.

We all know it’s difficult to prioritise ourselves as carers, and how hard it is to take time away.

But “time off” doesn’t have to mean a whole weekend.

The benefits of taking regular short breaks can be just as great as less frequent longer breaks – in fact, the positive impact on our well-being is often greater.

Short breaks are also often more achievable in a busy caring life.

In her book “20-Minute Vacations”, Judith Sachs talks about how mini breaks can lower your blood pressure, re-energise, and induce carefree feelings.

"Doing something for ourselves for just 20 minutes every day can really give us a boost."

Here are 10 suggestions to try:

1. Just be

The Italians call it "dolce far niente", the “sweetness of doing nothing”.

Stopping everything for a short while restores us in mind, body and soul. We can try this quick exercise to achieve five minutes of peace:

  • Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down

  • Turn off our phones

  • Give ourselves permission to relax and close our eyes

  • Take three deep breaths into our stomachs and sigh as we breathe out

  • Continue to breathe normally and calmly for as long as we like. For more guidance, try these simple breathing exercises for carers.

When we decide to stand up – we need to take it gently. Have a hot drink and a biscuit before we carry on with our day.

2. Enjoy an activity

Engaging in things we really enjoy can be a powerful way to reconnect with our sense of self.

It can be both relaxing and distracting to get absorbed in something different, yet familiar.

Devote 20 minutes to one of the below and see how it makes us feel:

  • Pick up a book and lose ourselves in reading

  • Do something creative – a sketch, doodle, colouring in, knitting …

  • Do a jigsaw or a crossword – puzzles are great for our brains too!

  • Go online and visit a gallery or museum for a virtual tour

  • Learn a new craft or skill – try baking bread, crochet, or knitting! YouTube is great for free tutorials on hundreds of different crafts.

3. Pamper ourselves

Getting out for a massage might feel or be impossible – but if we enjoy a spa day, why not create a mini spa environment at home. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Enjoy a luxurious long bath with some delicious scented bath oil

  • Give ourselves a head massage – just go with what feels good

  • Give ourselves a hand massage with moisturising cream

  • Give ourselves a facial or a manicure

  • Make a special afternoon tea with our favourite cuppa and cake(s)

  • Light some candles and put on some gentle music. Sit or lie down, then tense and relax each of our muscles from top to toe, consciously letting go of more tension each time.

4. Go shopping in your wardrobe

Can’t get to the shops? Bring the high street home by “shopping” our own wardrobes. This is a great idea when we feel we’ve nothing new to wear – and great for decluttering too! Here’s how to get started:

  • Do a full edit of our drawers and wardrobe. Be ruthless! A good clear out leaves room for new stuff and can feel really liberating!

  • Start in one area, e.g. shoes. Take them all out and then try them on. Are there some we haven’t seen for a while? Do we still like them? Decide which to keep and which to give away

  • Put together a new outfit – including shoes – using the clothes we find. Look at magazines for colour or style inspiration!

  • If we are good at sewing, see if we can make some slight changes to bring older clothes up to date – then we have something “new” to wear!

5. Get physical

Sitting down all day can make us feel sluggish and uninspired. Shake off the inertia, move our body, and use muscles we’ve forgotten about. It’s all about having fun! Try one of the below:

  • Go for a brisk walk – breathing deeply

  • Put on some music and dance around the kitchen

  • Get a piece of rope and do some skipping

  • Stretch our limbs to their limits then rub them down afterwards

  • Kick a ball about – or try juggling!

  • Try running and walking for 30 seconds alternately – this is great cardio work

6. Cook something special

Allow ourselves the time and luxury to make a special dish – or a cake – that we just don’t normally get to make. Immerse ourselves in the creation process – the smells, the flavours – imagining enjoying and sharing the results as we go.

For some cooking inspiration, we have a 'Quick and easy recipe for carers' blog!

7. Write a short story

Creative writing is a great way to get lost in an activity, limited only by our imagination! Simple ways into writing can include:

  • Put a word in the centre of a page and do a mind map of meanings and connected words.

  • Take our name and write sentences – or a poem – beginning with each letter.

  • Tell a story from our childhood, “My earliest memory … “

  • Write a letter to someone we admire.

  • Try using these story openings: “My superpower is …”; “The last time I went to … “; “I was never very good at … until …”; and the classic “Once upon a time …”

There are endless ways for us to explore our imaginations. We can further kickstart our imagination with creative writing here.

8. Get outside

Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu said: “Search your heart and see. The way to do is to be.” As carers, we are on the go all the time, but stopping to observe the world around us can be both calming and rejuvenating. Try:

  • Taking a seat outside a café and watching the world go by – people watching is fascinating!

  • Going for a nature walk and really observing the birds, squirrels, trees …

  • Sitting on a bench and daydreaming. What thoughts appear?

9. Make plans

Allow ourselves 20 minutes to review our situation – our environment, our relationships, our dreams, our wishes, etc. In a calm space, think about where we would like to make some changes. Then look at ways to plan for those changes.

Ask ourselves:

  • What is going well?

  • What is not going well?

  • What can I do differently?

  • What have I learned?

Don’t forget to focus on the things that are going well and how we might get more of them. It’s not all about the negative.

10. Remember that we matter, too

Maybe this should have been number 1 – but it felt right to end with this! Starting to prioritise ourselves is very personal. These suggestions are to give us some achievable ways to start getting some real, regular breaks. Remember:

  • Give ourselves permission to put ourselves first

  • Prioritising ourselves is not selfish – it is essential for our well-being

  • We have authentic needs and they need taking care of

  • Take note of how we are feeling and notice how that changes when we take care of our needs

  • Enjoy our time off! Listen to our free and favourite podcast for carers as a source of relaxation, education and entertainment. We deserve it.

  • Taking time for us is not taking time away from anyone else

“putting myself first
was a quiet thing –
soft but certain.
a gentle rebellion,
long overdue.”

(SRW Poetry)

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About the author

As well as being a parent carer, Jill Pay is an Independent Trainer-Facilitator and Life Coach, and was the Breaks & Activities Service Manager at Camden Carers until 2021.


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