Mindfulness Exercises Lessen Stress, Anxiety Symptoms Among Caregivers of Veterans, Study Shows

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by Patricia Inácio, PhD |

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Mindfulness-based interventions can improve mental health status, including reduction of stress and anxiety levels, in family caregivers of veterans with Parkinson’s disease and other health issues, a study shows.

The study, “A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention for Caregivers of Veterans,” was published in the journal Mindfulness.

Beyond combat-related physical injuries, U.S. military veterans often suffer from a wide variety of mental health issues, including Parkinson’s disease. In most cases, responsibility of daily care of these patients lies on informal caregivers, typically family members, who are the backbone of long-term care.

Recognizing the challenges and difficulties that are associated with caregiving, U.S. federal legislation was introduced to provide caregivers with financial and emotional support in the form of mentoring, support groups, and respite care. However, these strategies may fall short, as respondents from a Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) survey reported a lack of focus on caregiver mental health outcomes.

“While the Veterans Administration, the Dole Foundation, and other organizations are providing services, there’s research to suggest that some services often don’t match caregivers’ needs,” Sandraluz Lara-Cinisomo, PhD, said in a press release written by Sharita Forrest. Lara-Cinisomo is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and lead author of the study.

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“Furthermore, there’s been little research that has evaluated the effectiveness of current caregiver services,” she added.

In fact, compared with caregivers in the general population, informal caregivers of veterans are reported to have poorer mental health, as shown by higher levels of psychological distress and “caregiver burden,” highlighting the emotional, physical, and financial strains of caregiving. Moreover, evidence suggests that the physical and stressful demands experienced by those caring for military veterans are double those of other caregivers.

This underscores the need for more effective interventions to improve mental health outcomes among informal caregivers of veterans.

Researchers evaluated the potential of mindfulness-based intervention at improving perceived stress, depressive symptoms, anxiety, and worry among caregivers of veterans.

The pilot study recruited 23 caregivers, the majority being women caring for their spouses. They were randomized to undergo mindfulness intervention or to be included in a control waitlist group.

The majority of the participants had been caregiving for more than nine years, spending between 21 to 30 hours per week focused solely on the veterans’ needs, Lara-Cinisomo said. Also, 78% of the caregivers showed signs of moderate-to-extreme emotional stress resulting from their caring activities.

Participants underwent the mindfulness program for eight weeks, which included a weekly class of mindfulness exercises, such as sitting, walking, body scans, hearing and seeing meditations, and mindful stretching. They also were encouraged to practice these exercises at home during 30 to 40 minutes daily, with the help of an audio CD, until the next class.  They spent on average 19 minutes per week performing the mindfulness activities at home.

Caregivers in the waitlist control group did not receive any instructions or educational materials during the eight-week intervention time, but were offered mindfulness instructions following that period.

Overall, the mindfulness program was found to have a significant positive effect on caregivers’ perceived stress, anxiety, and worry compared to those in the waitlist group. Specifically, 91% of the caregivers in the mindfulness group reported less perceived stress and anxiety, and 73% experienced less depressive symptoms and worry.

“Despite our small numbers, we were able to show that mindfulness helps and that it should be pursued not only by researchers, but by practitioners and those providing services to this population,” Lara-Cinisomo said.

In contrast, only 42% of caregivers in the control group reported a reduction in perceived stress, depressive symptoms, and worry, while anxiety symptoms were lessened in 33% of them.

“Given these promising results, policymakers, health practitioners, and veteran-related programs should increase efforts to provide caregivers of veterans with mindfulness-based interventions to improve mental health outcomes,” researchers wrote.

Researchers plan to explore other potential benefits of mindfulness for this population, such as whether mindfulness-based interventions also may improve caregivers’ and veterans’ quality of sleep.