Alzheimer's blog

Caregivers choosing acceptance, not resentment, build happiness

By Angela Lunde October 30, 2012

Tom responded to the last posting on compassion by saying, "... as caregivers, we cannot give compassion for our loved one if we do not have it for ourselves first ... most of us do not know how to have compassion for ourselves. It is not something often taught in our culture.

"It may sound like we are feeling sorry for ourselves, or think that putting our own needs before our loved one is selfish. But, I think feeling sorry for ourselves is a different thing. It leads to feeling like we are victims and it leads to self-centeredness. It makes our world smaller. Whereas, when we truly have compassion for ourselves, it expands us and makes us more loving towards others, including our loved one."

This is beautifully articulated Tom, thank you.

Over the years, I've been with many caregivers and persons living with dementia and have felt their suffering. Adversity is part of each of our lives, yet what is vastly different is how people respond and how they choose to give meaning to a situation. This difference determines the quality of one's life.

Today, science is validating this. Neuroscience is discovering that the way in which we respond to or how we give meaning to a situation imprints a pathway in our brain.

When we respond to a situation or event as bad, unfair or hopeless, or if we tend to ruminate or react with irritability, chemical and electrical signals are sent to our brain and our mind becomes wired for this pattern of thinking.

Here's where it gets fascinating. We're learning that we can actually change our brain and rewire our neuropathways.

I recently attended a lecture by two of the world's leading experts in this area, Dr. Richard Davidson and Matthieu Ricard. Dr. Davidson is a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is perhaps the foremost researcher in the world investigating the connection between meditation, mindfulness, and brain function.

Matthieu Ricard is a French biochemist turned Buddhist monk, sometimes referred to as the happiest man in the world. The two discussed their ground breaking work on how reconditioning the mind actually changes its structure and functioning.

One of Dr. Davidson's most valuable findings is that it's possible to condition our mind to experience more compassion, happiness and joy.

I'm sure most of us would agree that our well-being and happiness would be positively impacted if we could be more self-compassionate, accept things as they are and let go of all that brings us down.

But for many caregivers and persons living with dementia, it can feel like your situation makes this impossible to do, that you have no control and no choice in your personal well-being and happiness.

I agree that life brings with it devastating situations, and it's completely natural to have negative feelings and emotions and to perceive events as unjust or impossible.

What's critical is to recognize that self-compassion and greater happiness can occur alongside adversity and negative feelings.

So, as caregivers, is it possible to be happier even if nothing changes in your life? I believe it is, and it starts with a willingness to be with yourself as a loving companion to your own pain.

It starts with checking in with yourself each day by turning your attention inward and noticing the sensations and tension in your body, observing your thoughts, feelings and listening to your heart.

In order to change negative feelings, we first have to notice them. Jon Kabat-Zinn says that to be in relationship with what you're going through, to hold it, and, in some sense, to befriend it is where the healing lies.

Then, we are free to choose to take action in a different way then we have in the past.  This is where we can recondition the mind for compassion and happiness.

As caregivers, we can choose acceptance, keeping in mind that accepting things as they are is not the same as liking or agreeing with them. We can choose forgiveness. Perhaps this means we let go of past regrets or the burden of trying to change a relative who is unsupportive.

You can't hold on to to a grievance and be happy. Resentment keeps us stuck in the past and is a decision to keep suffering. Maybe you choose gratitude. The miracle of gratitude is that it shifts our perception of our life. When we choose gratitude, we move out of the negative patterns of the mind and can be open to the gifts that already exist within us and around us.

Happiness is the organic state of our soul. Yet, by default, we all fall into negative patterns of thinking and happiness gets buried. But the research is compelling — with practice, we can pattern our brain for more happiness. If a mindfulness practice is something you'd like to explore more, I've listed a few of my favorite books below:

  • "Train Your Brain ... Engage Your Heart ... Transform Your Life", by Dr. Amit Sood
  • "The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live — and How You Can Change Them", by Dr. Richard Davidson
  • "The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions", by Dr. Christopher Germer
  • "Ambiguous Loss", by Pauline Boss

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Oct. 30, 2012