Handling a loved one’s illness is never easy, whether they’re living with a chronic condition or an acute illness that’s become unexpectedly serious. Many people associate hospitals with life-altering diagnoses and situations, and seeing a loved one in that setting can create a lot of fear, stress and anxiety.
Coping with a sick loved one is never easy, and it can bring on a surge of confusing emotions and reactions. While trying to figure out how to stop worrying about a sick loved one may not always be feasible, there are a few things someone can do to build up their support system and take care of their own mental health needs.
Understanding Your Emotions and Reactions
Seeing a loved one experience a significant medical event or emergency can stir up some complicated emotions. For many people, the common phobia of losing loved ones causes them to feel detached or anxious while others may feel guilty that they didn’t somehow intervene and prevent a traumatic event or illness.
Experiencing distress and constant changes in emotions is common when someone you love is in the hospital. On some days, you may feel optimistic about the future, and on others, you may feel anxious and overwhelmed. It’s natural for someone to try to distance themselves emotionally from their thoughts and feelings during stressful times, but staying mindful and present and learning to accept uncomfortable emotions can ultimately reduce anxiety.
Rather than suppressing uncomfortable emotions, mindfully acknowledge them and choose to engage in the present rather than worrying about what might happen tomorrow, next week or next month. As much as you’re able, try to engage with the world around you in a way that best serves you and those who are going through this difficult time alongside you. Remember that there’s no “right” way to feel when someone you love is hospitalized, and experiencing a range of emotions is normal and healthy.
Establishing Communication and Support Systems
A strong support system can be vital to hospital patients, with studies showing that patients with the weakest social networks face a greater mortality risk. While providing emotional support, practical help and companionship to someone who’s hospitalized is important, the patient isn’t the only one who needs a support network – their loved ones also need a helping hand and a listening ear.
Having a loved one in the hospital can be an isolating experience. Oftentimes, family members and close friends feel like they’re leading two separate lives – their life as a support person who provides companionship for the patient and tracks down information from health care providers, and their life as a spouse, parent, employee or student with all the responsibilities that come with those roles. The juggling that it takes to make everything work can quickly lead to exhaustion.
A support system is vital for getting through difficult times. For some people, this support system is informal and comes in the form of compassionate colleagues at work or friends and family members who aren’t as intimately involved in the situation. For others, in-person or virtual support group meetings provide space to share fears, frustrations and experiences. Either way, it’s important for the individual to find a safe space where they’re free to talk about their emotions and the challenges they’re facing without worrying that they’re adding to someone else’s emotional load.
Self-Care Strategies for Coping with Stress and Anxiety
Taking care of someone who is sick can be physically, emotionally and mentally taxing. If you don’t take the time to care for your own health, you can quickly burn out. In fact, hospitalization for anxiety and depression can sometimes be tied to caring for a loved one’s medical needs to the point of exhaustion. Practicing self-care strategies for coping with stress and anxiety can help you have the strength you need to deal with long days, disappointing setbacks and important decisions.
- Find a support group. Oftentimes, you can find support groups made of people who are in similar situations through local churches, community centers or the hospital your loved one is checked into.
- Educate yourself. Familiarize yourself with your loved one’s diagnosis and what their treatment is likely to entail.
- Set realistic goals and expectations for your loved one’s recovery. While everyone’s hope is that their loved one’s recovery will be uncharacteristically speedy or unexpectedly complete, this isn’t always realistic. Being honest about how you expect your loved one’s recovery process to look, as well as the emotions they’re likely to experience along the way, can spare you from a lot of stress and disappointment.
- Get help when you need it. If you’re spending a lot of time in your loved one’s hospital room, it may be unreasonable to think you’ll be able to handle your other duties as effectively as you normally do. If possible, consider hiring a weekly housecleaner or get help with childcare.
- Maintain comfortable boundaries. When a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency, it’s easy to over-commit and take on duties that you’re not comfortable with or don’t have time for. Maintaining healthy boundaries can help you avoid burnout while also giving others the opportunity to help out.
- Practice self-care. Things such as regular exercise, healthy eating and ample sleep may not seem important when a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency, and they’re often the first things to go when times get hard. However, continuing to practice self-care can give you the strength you need to help a sick loved one and cope with stress and anxiety.
Navigating the Recovery Process Together
While coping with a sick loved one can be stressful, you can provide invaluable support as your loved one faces recovery.
Understand the System
The health care system can feel like a maze of confusing terminology, specializations within specializations, time-wasting protocols and conflicting information. Getting as familiar as possible with the system and the health care professionals within it can help individuals feel less intimidated by their loved ones’ diagnoses and treatment plans. If possible, find a couple points of contact that can help you wade through information and understand hospital rules.
Most people worry that they’re doing too little or too much or they’re not quite sure whether they know the right things to say. Because of the common phobia of losing loved ones, it may feel easier to just put distance between themselves and the situation. However, their support is paramount for the patient’s mental health and well-being. Simply being there with a loved one to provide emotional support, conversation and reassurance goes a long way in supporting their recovery.
Be an Advocate
For the patient, inpatient care can be physically and emotionally exhausting. You can help them navigate the recovery process by being an advocate and asking clarifying questions to help them understand their diagnosis and treatment options. While this doesn’t necessarily mean scrutinizing every aspect of the individual’s care, it can mean getting clarification on confusing medical terms, asking about a medication’s potential side effects or even simply requesting an extra pillow for the patient.
As emotionally challenging as hospitalization can be on family members and close friends, it’s typically considerably harder on the patient. It’s normal for them to exhibit emotions such as sadness, anger, disappointment and frustration, depending on their medical crisis. Resist the urge to encourage them to stay positive or to downplay difficult emotions. Instead, practice patience and be willing to let them express the emotions they’re feeling.
Coping with a sick loved one is never easy, especially when hospitalization is involved. While there isn’t a “right” way to navigate stressful and scary medical emergencies, there are some steps you can take to address the phobia of losing loved ones and manage your own mental health while your loved one is sick or injured.
Depending on your connection to the individual and their medical event or emergency, you may benefit from professional mental health care. At Restore Mental Health, we offer PTSD and trauma treatment and can help you develop the tools you need for your own recovery. Contact us today to learn more.