Alzheimer's blog

Negative thoughts make Alzheimer's caregiving harder

By Angela Lunde January 24, 2012

This morning I went to teach a yoga class at a local studio. Each month, The Karma Yoga Project offers a yoga instructor the opportunity to guide a class for the community with a free will donation collected for a charity or non-profit. The Alzheimer's Association was my non-profit of choice. I arrived shortly before the 10:00 start time only to discover that is was actually an 8:00 start time.

Almost before my next breath my mind raced: "Am I a complete idiot, how could I be so irresponsible?" Followed by my cynical self thinking, "Well, given the week I've had wouldn't you know something like this would happen." Like an automatic switch, my mind was drawn into negative self talk. Remember, our mind believes what we tell it, so in those next several minutes I felt miserable and defeated.

I bring this up because last time we talked about setting intentions and daily affirmations. In this situation, it didn't matter what my intention was, or the daily affirmation I was particularly mindful of. Something bad still happened. Or so it felt.

Similarly, Deborah replied to the last blog with this: "I do try to have a positive attitude but I have to tell you just telling yourself each morning that this day is going to be really good does not change a thing." And I have to imagine that many of you may feel like Deborah — believing it to be an impossible task to think positive when you're living the life of a caregiver. Bad things will happen even with the best intentions.

Whether or not you understand or buy into the power of intention and affirmations, maybe we can all agree that there is a connection between what we think and how our thoughts make us feel. Our thoughts shape who we are. Behind every situation there is a thought, and how we perceive that situation and respond determines how we cope, or not.

In other words, the stress you feel is not only the result of your personal caregiving situation but also your perception of it. Caregivers are uniquely susceptible to unhelpful thought patterns. One example is that of over-generalizing. Let's say the one you're caring for is repeating the same question over and over. Negative thinking would be, "When is this going to stop? This will go on all day. No one understands how difficult this is."

Positive self talk on the other hand sounds more like, "This doesn't go on all the time. After a while he usually gets distracted by something else. I can remain calm and patient for a while longer. This is a symptom of his disease."

The fact is that we can control our thoughts and our mind believes what we tell it. So, when we channel thoughts in a more positive direction, things are better. More often than not, we gain a sense of control and the resilience to cope more effectively with the stress and demands of caregiving.

Why is this concept of positive self talk, affirmations, and perceiving the glass half full rather than half empty one I speak about frequently? Because these ideas and tools give us the power to change what we can change. We can't change many of the realities of Alzheimer's, but we can change our thinking and that changes how we feel. Perhaps most importantly, you may find you become kinder and gentler with yourself.

So, how do you begin the practice of fighting off these negative thoughts? First off, know that negative thoughts happen automatically — remember my immediate negative thoughts about the yoga class. The key is to become an expert in identifying your negative thoughts quickly and not let them linger and find refuge in your mind.

Instead of fighting with your negative thoughts, just be aware and observe them. Don't get sucked into them. Recognizing that you are having negative thoughts is vital. It's at that point that you can choose to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and take control of how you feel.

As I got into my car after leaving the yoga class I never taught, I thought to myself, I can make mistakes, I'm human, I'm not perfect and I'm OK with that. Later that day, I received an e-mail from the organizer of the Karma Yoga Project. He wrote that he found it refreshing to know that I could make such a mistake — feels good to know we all share such imperfection he said.

"It is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so."
- William Shakespeare

Jan. 24, 2012