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Mental Illness Guide: Care, Support, and Education
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How can I deal with my negative feelings about my relative?

Many feelings come up in families coping with a relative’s illness, and not all of them are good feelings.  Some of these feelings, good and bad, will occur over and over again as family members face new challenges on a relative’s road to recovery.  Therefore, it is helpful to take a look at some specific feelings, how they show up, and how you can manage them.

Dealing with anger

Anger is a normal feeling that we all have at certain times.  Many people feel angry because their family member has  mental illness.  You may have asked yourself, “Why did this have to happen to our family?” or thought, “No matter what I do, it never seems to help.”   If you cannot change the things that cause angry feelings, you can learn how to deal with them better.

1.      Express your anger in a healthy way.

Expressing your feelings is a healthy way to deal with anger.  There is no point in being nasty, or destructive, or hostile.  You have to learn how to be clear about your own needs and how to get your needs met without hurting others.  You do not have to be pushy or demanding, and you should not yell.

Example: It is better to say, “I would like,” than to say “I demand,”or “I must have,” something.  For instance, say, “Please help me bring the groceries in from the car,” rather than, “You have to bring the groceries in from the car now!”

The first step is to simply say what you want.  If you are unable to get what you want, you may feel frustrated, disappointed and hurt, but not angry.

2.      Avoid keeping your anger inside.

Keeping your anger in check and pointing it somewhere else will help you change your anger into useful behavior.  When you hold off reacting in anger and stop thinking about how angry you are, you can focus on something positive.  Be careful, though, that your anger is pointed at the situation that is making you angry.  If you try to swallow up your angry feelings and not let them out, they may cause physical illness or depression.

Example:  Your relative has agreed to only smoke in his/her room or outside.  If he/she breaks that rule:

DO NOT yell and try to make your relative feel bad for even wanting to smoke a cigarette

DO say to your relative, “We have a house rule about smoking.  You have agreed to only smoke in your room, or outside.  I have to live here too and the smoke makes it hard for me to breathe.”

3.      Calm yourself.

Calming yourself down will help you control your responses and behavior.  By calming yourself down and taking a few deep breaths, you will be able to lower your heart rate and let the bad feelings slip away.   Remind yourself that the world is “not out to get you.”  You are just experiencing some of the rough spots of daily life.

Try to relax

It is possible to make yourself relax.  Use deep breathing, or picture a relaxing experience, such as being near a body of water or watching a sunset.

Change the way you think

When people get angry, they often curse, swear or yell.  Their thinking becomes exaggerated and over-dramatic.  Try replacing these thoughts with calmer ones.

Example:  Instead of telling yourself, “Oh, it is awful, it is terrible, everything is  ruined,” tell yourself, “It is hard to deal with, I am very upset, but it is not the end of the world and getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow.”

4.      Try to communicate more positively.

People get angry if his/her jump to conclusions, and some of these conclusions can be wrong.  Instead of jumping to conclusions, slow down.  Do not say the first thing that comes into your head.  Listen to what the other person is saying. Consider how the other person may feel.  If you are feeling trapped because dealing with your relative takes so much of your time, do not try to make him/her feel horrible because his/her are sick.  Tell him/her that you need some time to yourself every day, and try to help him/her to find a social rehabilitation center where his/her can spend part of their day.

Try to use some humor to face your problems, and refuse to take yourself too seriously.  People get angry when his/her feel they are morally right and they should NOT have to suffer this way.  Picture yourself in a scene where everybody just bows down and caters to everything you want and need.  That might be a pretty funny picture.  As you create this picture in your head, you may begin to realize that some of what you want is unreasonable.  You may also realize how unimportant the things you are angry about really are.

Learn more about communicating with your relative.

5.   Give yourself a break.

Give yourself a break from the problems and responsibilities that weigh on you and make you feel “trapped”.  Do things that you enjoy.  Get out of the house.  Each week plan something you like to do.  Set a lunch date with friends.  Go to a movie.

6.      Avoid situations that make you angry.

If it makes you angry to watch your relative eat because of the way he/she cut their meat, move your seat at the table so that you do not have to watch his/her, or eat at a different time.  Do not say, “The person with  mental illness should cut their meat like I taught his/her.” You may not be able to change his/her, so do not get angry.  The point is to keep calm.

7.      Do not get angry about the illness.

Having a family member with  mental illness is a reality that will not go away, and there may be many times when you are angry about this illness.  Although you cannot change this feeling, you can change the way you react to it.  It is not your fault, or anyone else’s, that your relative got sick.  Try not to get angry.  Focus on helping your relative get better.  This will keep you from becoming even more unhappy in the long run.

Dealing with blaming yourself and feeling ashamed

It is quite common for the family members of people with schizophrenia to blame themselves or one another.  When you first found out about your relative’s illness, you might have asked yourself, “Are we to blame?”, or thought, “If only we had been better parents.”

Keep in mind that this is not your fault.

It is a fact that families do not cause the mental illness. Mental illness is a disorders of the brain caused by a chemical imbalance.  There is nothing you did, or did not do, that “caused” your relative to have a mental illness.  Once you accept that there is no one to blame and no reason to feel shame, you can start to manage the situation in a way that works for everyone in the family.

Dealing with stress

Stress is a natural part of life.  Each person handles stress differently.  You may feel a lot of stress in trying to deal with your relative’s illness, as well as with the needs of other members of your family.

Reduce stress in the home

Anger, loud voices, yelling, shouting and arguing are extremely upsetting and stressful to a person with mental illness.  Families can help their relatives by learning to lower the level of stress at home.  Lowering stress will help the chances of your relative staying well.  A person with mental illness’s lowered ability to deal with stress including those stresses common to family life.

Stress can affect your health, energy, peace of mind, and relationships, both at home and at work.  The more you can learn how to manage your stress, the healthier you will be.

Here are some tips on how to reduce stress:

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Be realistic.

Learn to say NO.  Do not take on more than you can handle.

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Forget about being “Superman” or “Superwoman”.

Do not expect to be perfect.   Do not expect others to be perfect.  Ask for help when you need it.

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Take a few minutes each day for yourself.

Spending 10 to 20 minutes a day off by yourself in a quiet place can bring relief from stress.  This “quiet time” can also help increase your ability to withstand stress.

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Visualize.

Picture how you might have managed a stressful situation better.

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Deal with one thing at a time.

Pick one urgent job, and do not take up another one until you have finished the first one.

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Exercise.

20 to 30 minutes of physical activity each day helps both the body and the mind.

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Share your feelings.

Find love, support, and help from friends and loved ones.  Do not try to cope alone.

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Do not criticize.

You may expect too much of yourself and others.  Try not to expect too much of the person with mental illness.  Try not to expect too much of other family members who are also trying to cope with your relative.

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Get professional help when you need it.

It may be helpful to talk with your doctor, your priest, pastor or rabbi, or employee assistance program if your stress level is too high.  They may refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or other qualified counselor.