I recently traveled to Guatemala. At the end of one of our excursions, our tour guide handed each of us a goodbye gift. It was a small handcrafted pouch of “worry dolls.” He explained the legend surrounding this custom.
Many generations ago, the indigenous people from the Guatemalan highlands created these dolls as a remedy for worrying. Before going to sleep at night, a person would tell their worry to as many dolls as necessary. Then they would place these tiny dolls in a cloth pouch and put it under their pillow. The dolls take over worrying so that the person can then sleep peacefully through the night. In the morning the person awakens without the worries that the dolls took away.
There is a Swedish proverb: “Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.” I used to be a “worry wart” in my teen years and early adulthood. My worries usually came from anticipating the worst that could happen regarding a situation. This was the stressful part – anticipation – and usually the worst never came about. Worry was really a drain on my body and spirit. The process of maturing taught me that worries don’t change the outcome of things. As Corrie ten Boom wrote, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.”
One of my consistent worries while caring for my mother was what would happen to her if she were taken alone by ambulance from her assisted living facility to the hospital while I was at work. I describe this in my memoir, Elegy for Mom. This actually happened on several occasions. My worry was that she would not be able to describe what was wrong or the location of her pain. Consequently, the doctors wouldn’t know what to do to begin treatment. Each of those times when I arrived at the emergency room, Mom appeared calm. She seemed to know she was in a hospital. I was the frightened one – not Mom! I later found out that the nurse at Mom’s assisted living facility had given the medics a file folder containing all her health issues and medications to take along with Mom in the ambulance.
When you care for a loved one with dementia, I don’t believe you can ever be completely “worry-free.” There will be times when you will worry. You may even feel by worrying that you are doing something “useful.” Perhaps you are underestimating your ability to cope with the challenges of caring for a person with dementia. Worry can take a toll on your sleep, tax your immune system, drain your mental and physical energy, send your anxiety levels soaring, and turn into a cycle of self-perpetuating negative thinking.
Sometimes worry can be a good thing. For example, if there is an actual threat, it may spur you to take action or solve a problem. However, if you find yourself starting to become overwhelmed with worry, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Is your worry productive or unproductive? Will it help you or hurt you?
- Does worry limit you and cause you to panic or freeze from thinking clearly?
- How much does worry interfere with your life?
- Is the problem solvable rather than an imaginary “what if?”
Negative moods, like guilt and shame, even physical states like pain, tiredness, or fatigue can fuel worrying. Worry hinders rather than facilitates effective problem solving. It is not an alternative to coming up with practical ways to tackle a problem. Try these suggestions to resolve the matter:
- Talk about your worry to a close friend or family member. Getting it out often helps make it easier to see the real issue for what it is. A trusted family member or friend may help you find a more useful and practical perspective.
- Write it out. Make a worry list and then order them. Jot down what triggered the worry. What is the worst that can happen? You may start to see patterns.
- What is one small step you can take to start improving the situation? Can you come up with a Plan A, Plan B, or even a Plan C, if needed?
- Learn more about the issue. Perhaps reading about the disease, or discussing health issues with a doctor can ease your mind so that you have an idea if the situation is to be expected as part of the disease progression.
- Try to lift your mood if you begin to feel that worry is zapping you further. What can you do to make your life more pleasant?
- What early messages did you get about your capabilities? Give up the belief that worry will be the solution to the problem.
- Before your worries begin to overwhelm you, seek professional help.
Caregivers need all the physical, mental, and creative energies that they can muster. Save your energy for productive things, and try not to let worry drain you. Give yourself credit for challenges that you have overcome in the past. Have confidence in your ability to deal with the challenges that await you.
Get a good rest each evening in the knowledge that you did the best you could that day as a caregiver and you won’t need those worry dolls. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson has these words of wisdom:
“Finish each day and be done with it,
you have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can.
Tomorrow is a new day,
you shall begin it well and serenely.”
I wish you peace, patience, serenity, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!
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The Center for Clinical Interventions in Perth, Australia, has an educational module about “What? Me Worry?,” an excellent detailed overview about worrying. Check it out here: http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/GAD_2_2015_Worry.pdf.
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I composed a prayer based on a line from Psalm 40, to help alleviate worries. Check it out on the “Resource” section of my website: https://caregiverfamilies.com/inspiration/.
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