Don’t Let Caring For Others Make You Sick

Back when I was a younger physician, if my patients didn’t get better, I took it, personally. I thought it was a result of my inexperience. “Am I missing something?” “Am I doing something wrong?” It didn’t even cross my mind that my patients’ physical symptoms might be an indirect result of their emotional and spiritual conflicts. When I heard “old” doctors talk about such things, I figured they had just become lazy over time—or “out of touch” with how the young, modern doctors (like me) did things. I thought, “If only they were willing to try harder, surely they would have figured out what was wrong.”

Now, after nineteen additional years in practice, I know a lot more about human nature, and I recognize that the old doctors were right. Stress literally makes the physical body sick and sends people to early graves. It causes high blood pressure, heart disease, and pain-producing illnesses like fibromyalgia, knots in the muscles (myofascial pain), migraine headaches, jaw pain (TMJ dysfunction), neck and back pain, and other conditions, like unexplained rashes and allergies, irritable bowels, and so forth.

Of all the possible sources of conflict (and hence physical illness) that my patients face, one of the biggest is strained family relationships. If their children make bad life choices and end up on drugs, in jail, or faced with unwanted pregnancies, they wonder, “Am I a bad parent? What kind of future will my kids have if things look this bad now? My kid’s situation must be my fault,” and their resultant grief makes them physically ill.

Or they get sick because of stress from their bad marriages. “My husband treats me badly, but I can’t leave because of the kids.” Or, “I don’t deserve better and I can’t make it on my own, anyway.” In a way, their illnesses can serve as distractions that keep them from thinking about how miserable and out-of-control their lives are, in general.

In contrast, other patients get stressed-out and sick because they’re the primary care-givers to their aging parents—some of whom have dementia and lack insight about what’s best for them. They insist on staying in their homes, even when it’s no longer safe for them to do so. That forces the adult children to be the bad guys, and, as you might imagine, in turn, leads them to experience guilt and worry and become physically ill because of it.

I know because I, too, am part of this “sandwich generation.” About four years ago, my 80+ year old mother began to decline to the point that it became unsafe for her to continue to live alone. She could easily have fallen down the stairs, broken a hip, gotten pneumonia while laid up in the hospital, and died. But, against my advice, she stayed in her home. Her desire to remain independent was understandable. She lived in that home for over forty years. It’s where her children grew up.

Ultimately, Mom had a near-fatal intestinal bleed that completely debilitated her and forced her to move into assisted living. Though I implored her to move near me, she didn’t want to leave her familiar surroundings, and I suppose I can’t blame her for that.

Aging can be horribly unfair. But it’s unfair beyond what it does to senior citizens. It can destroy the relationships and health of their adult children, too. It leads them to experience undue guilt, worry, frustration, and conflicts with each other over who is doing what, how things are going to go, who is going to pay for it, and so forth.

In my case, when my mom was ill, I developed guilt-induced pain between my shoulder blades. The guilt was due to the fact that I lived half-way across the country and couldn’t do more to help her. Basically, my brothers were left to do more than their fair share. It was a very frustrating situation for all of us, to say the least.

Thankfully, after I prayed for a clearer perspective, God responded. He revealed that I believed several lies in this situation. On some subconscious level, I believed that I should be able to fix this problem (because I’m a doctor) and make my mother happy (because I’m the only daughter). But I couldn’t do either, not even if I lived right next door to her. My mom’s happiness or unhappiness was entirely out of my control—not my fault and not possible for me to fix. You could say I was “shouldering” a burden that didn’t belong to me (hence the shoulder blade pain). In truth, my mother was aging and she could no longer have the life she wanted to have. Her situation just wasn’t fixable—not by anyone.

How about you? Are you in a similar situation, either with an aging parent or someone else whose life you feel responsible for fixing? If so, are you letting the stress of being a care-taker poison your other relationships and your health? Maybe you’ve had flare-ups of your physical symptoms or addictive behaviors as a result.

If I just described you, pray to God not only for help but also for answers, so you can continue to do your good deeds without suffering bad health in the process. After all, I’m not suggesting you abandon people who need your help. I’m saying only that you need to protect your health so you don’t go down the tubes with them.

To protect yourself, search for truth. Prayerfully ask God if you believe lies about yourself in the midst of your care-taking situation. Perhaps you have taken on a false sense of blame. Do you believe it’s up to you to “fix” the problem, when God Himself can’t (because the person in question won’t let Him, because he or she has a negative mind set, or because the situation is just plain unfixable)?

Think about it….if the person in question won’t receive help (due to mind set issues, addictions, or any other reason), how are you supposed to “fix” things? You can’t. You are not more powerful than God! You don’t have the right to “make” people do what’s right when they don’t want to or aren’t able.

In summary, for the sake of your health, let go of your pride, let go of trying to fix things that are out of your control, let God be God, and forgive the other people who are involved, if that’s relevant. Forgive your parents, forgive your siblings and/or children, forgive those who failed to rescue you, and forgive yourself. Doing these things will likely cause you to feel more emotional peace and experience fewer physical symptoms as you extend grace and take care of your needy loved ones. Otherwise, you’ll go down, health-wise, along with them, which is exactly what the Enemy wants.

About the Author: For more information about how stress affects the physical body—and how to overcome this stress with biblical truth, read Dr. Rita Hancock’s book, Radical Well-being: A Biblical Guide to Overcoming Pain, Illness, and Addictions (Siloam, March 5, 2013) or visit www.RadicalWell-being.com.  Also, follow Dr. Rita on Twitter (@RitaHancockMD) and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RadicalWellBeing. And for Dr. Rita’s biblical weight loss advice, visit www.TheEdenDiet.com.