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Learning how to give and receive love and support in our daily lives is critical for our health and well-being.1 – “This is one of the four key pillars of the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine (Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation).

Researchers have identified increased longevity as a benefit of providing support to another

For decades, research studies have verified that those who engage in supportive, social relationships are not only happier, they are also healthier and live longer than those who are socially isolated. However, today, many of these supportive relationships involve the caretaking of others for protracted periods of time under less than ideal circumstances. Caregivers are often caught in a web of attending to other’s needs at the expense of their own health.

Families are often the primary source for caregiving. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance more than 43 million Americans, about 18% of adults, tend to a family member or friend. Referred to as “informal caregivers,” they are the largest source of long term care in the U.S., contributing labor worth almost half a trillion dollars.

The role of caregiver can simultaneously be experienced as a deeply rewarding but also highly stressful experience. Providing ongoing support to loved ones can feel fulfilling. Caregivers often report that taking care of others makes them feel good about themselves. It brings meaning into their lives. Their efforts can be personally growth-producing, while also strengthening the emotional bond with the loved one whom they are helping.

In one study,researchers from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research identified increased longevity as a benefit of providing support. They found that “Mortality was significantly reduced for individuals who reported providing instrumental support to friends, relatives and neighbors, and individuals who reported providing emotional support to their spouse.”

While the rewards of caregiving are many, over time, the toll of taking care of others can sometimes result in escalating stress. This in turn can lead to unhealthy behaviors and health damaging effects. The caregiver may notice that they are increasingly grabbing food on the run, and short changing their exercise time. They may also find that they are skipping a stress management practice more frequently and finding little or no time at all for social enjoyment. Caregivers must be vigilant in maintaining their physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual health.

Tips to Promote Healthy Caregiving

Claim Time Out to be “Un-Responsible”

Often a healthy caregiver may feel guilty for feeling well when their loved one is suffering. Subsequently, they do not feel justified in taking time to recoup and recharge their own battery. But caregivers need and deserve scheduled time away periodically from their pervasive, unremitting responsibilities. No one can give from an empty well. Taking a breather is the opposite of being irresponsible. Giving oneself permission to experience pockets of un-responsibility is highly responsible. Self-care is not selfish. It provides the caregiver with needed rest stops, so that they can return to their caregiving with renewed commitment and vitality, not resentment and burn-out.

Tip: At the beginning of each week, pencil respite breaks into your schedule. Examples may include a daily walk, a massage, going to the movies, a phone or lunch date with a close friend, journaling, or taking a luxurious bath with a good book.

Try this relaxing 3 minute practice video, Breathing with the Full Body

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Invite Additional Support. Share Your Story.

Independence has its place, but sometimes it can be a mask for chronic overdoing which is often rooted in perfectionism. Remind yourself that asking for support is a sign of strength and not weakness. Asking for help shows a determination to stay strong so that you can continue caring for your loved ones. We can thank flight attendants for their valuable advice, “Always put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.” Asking for and receiving support is a sure sign of interdependence and self-preservation. It can be an invitation to connect and collaborate with others. In doing so, your social circle is broadened and deepened with the added bonus of having your needs met. Having needs does not mean that you are needy. It means that you are human and deserving of all available support.

Take time to share your story with others. Invite others to share their stories with you. This can be the most effective, compassionate and supportive way of reminding yourself that you are never alone.

Tip: Talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to help you to identify additional resources for support. Confide in trusted others. Tell them about your situation and your needs therein. Be open to receiving any support that friends, co-workers, neighbors offer to you.

Additional resources:

The United Way provides useful information and assistance. They may be able to refer you to services in your community.

The National Health Information Center may also be helpful in locating resources in your area.

Don’t Fear Negative Emotions

Many emotions arise when taking care of others day in and day out. Not paying attention to your feelings can lead to trouble in coping with daily challenges. This can result in stress eating, increasing isolation, depression, substance abuse and more. Remember that experiencing negative emotions does not make one a negative person. Kind people sometimes do not feel kind. All feelings are messengers of perception. If we ignore, suppress or deny them, as one caregiver so wisely said, “They will just come out sideways, and that’s not pretty.” As we increase our awareness of what and how we feel by identifying our emotions (See Ornish Living article, The Science Behind Why Naming Our Feelings Makes Us Happier) we can then find productive and healthier ways of responding to them and expressing them to others.

Tip: Keep a feelings journal. Schedule an appointment to share your feelings with a licensed counselor or trusted family member, friend or clergy. Join a support group.

Check out this moving and compassionate book by Nell Lake, The Caregivers: A Support Group’s Stories of Slow Loss, Courage and LoveIt chronicles the experiences of a group of long term caregivers.

For more information on anxiety and depression, log on to the website for the National Institute of Mental Health.

Continue To Nurture Your Spirit

Keeping an open and receptive heart while you are coping with the demands of caregiving is no small feat. Persevering, often against exhausting odds, will require the tending and befriending of your internal resources. Exploring the question, “What brings me Peace?” will help to direct your efforts toward feeding your spirit.

Tip: Resume attending previously enjoyed religious services. Participate in private or communal prayer. Take time for inspirational reading. Develop a daily meditation practice.

Check out this book by Beth Witrogen McLeod, Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss and RenewalIt is a blend of practical and spiritual wisdom.

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Blessing or Burden

Caring for a loved one may be short term as a friend or family member recovers, for example, from surgery. Or it could involve caretaking that extends for months or even years as a parent, child, friend or spouse deals with a chronic illness or the consequences of aging.

Giving of time, energy, resources and love to others can be a rewarding experience filled with emotional intimacy. But as the obligations become more complicated and demanding, it can feel draining and overwhelming.

Remember to administer daily doses of self-kindness. Continue to recognize your valuable contributions while receiving the love and support that you need and so richly deserve. When we feel better, we do better-for ourselves and for others. It’s a win-win.

Caring for others is a true labor of love that can deeply enrich our lives, provided that we do not use ourselves up in the process. With conscious caregiving we can uncover a love we didn’t know was possible.


Self-care is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have,

                      the gift I was put on this earth to offer others”.

                                                                                                       –Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak


What do you do to take care of yourself while taking care of others?

Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

Hearts linked, together we heal…

Better Health Begins With You...

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