5 minutes to “take a break”

04 December 2023

5 minutes to “take a break”

The holiday season represents joy, reunions, time with family and friends, but also preparations. The list of tasks to accomplish is long, and can sometimes be overwhelming.


Sylvie Desbiens, a specialized educator and psychosocial worker, is one of the counselors who welcomes you when you contact the Caregiver Support Helpline. She has been working with caregivers for over 20 years, and is the ideal person to speak with about ways to ground ourselves in the present moment this holiday season.

Why should we refocus on the present moment?

Every caregiver obviously wants to do the best they can, and can quickly become overloaded with tasks. Caregiving is added to our roles as children, spouses, parents, etc. The sheer number of tasks can generate fatigue and stress. The sheer number of tasks can generate fatigue and anxiety. Caregivers often anticipate scenarios, sometimes catastrophic, sometimes without even realizing it. This is where the importance of focusing on the present moment comes in, to reduce anxiety and become more effective at planning for the future.

This quote from Abraham Lincoln applies perfectly to caregivers: “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” When we prepare for and imagine the future, it’s often coloured by our past experience. For example, my mother should go into housing, but she’ll never leave her house, a friend tells me this about housing, another tells me that… In short, we often tend to use past experience to plan for the future. Basically, we’re always moving back and forth between the past and the future.

So how do we stop the pendulum swinging back and forth between the future and the past? In the present moment, what can we do to be more efficient and restore our energy reserves? How can we refocus, right now, if only for 5 minutes?

What’s in it for the caregiver? Could caregiving be … self-effacing?

My observation is as follows: when people are projecting and playing out scenarios of what might happen, they fall into defence mode and move away from the search for solutions. It was in observing this that I began to think about what could be proposed to caregivers.

Sylvie, you love horses and draw inspiration from them in your work as a psychosocial counselor. How do you do that?

I’ve been teaching riding and working with horses for 42 years. The nature of horses has taught me to refocus on the present moment. If I anticipate something, the horse will automatically feel it and react. Its reaction to stress is to flee, freeze or attack. These three mechanisms are well known and present in humans too.

With the horse, when you refocus in the present moment, being exactly grounded, “there,” the horse settles down and becomes accessible. So, with this animal that weighs around 500 kg and can be unpredictable, we’re safe. It’s tangible and visible.

I got to thinking about the fact that a caregiver who’s accompanying someone is often anticipating events that haven’t happened yet. Anticipation forces them to deploy energy and means of defence, even before the danger arises. This anticipation leaves the caregiver vulnerable.

So how can we refocus on the present?

Good question, especially at Christmas time! And it’s easy to say and easy to do. It’s important to remember this phrase. Over the years, I’ve developed an approach in which I use the letters of the word STOP, an approach that involves using our five senses and takes only 5 minutes:

  • Silence. Find yourself a quiet place;
  • Time. Take the time to stop, now. In your mind, name five items around you. For example, a pot of flowers. The smell of the herbal tea in front of me. The floor that’s cold when I put my feet on it;
  • Observation. Observing how it feels to be here, in the present moment;
  • Present. Making the most of this time, breathing.

While I’m taking the time to identify these elements, I’m not in a state of anticipation, thinking about accommodation for my mother. I’m in the present moment, in my very short five minutes that I give myself with a timer. I use the STOP technique for myself and I sometimes talk about this approach with family caregivers.

What are the benefits?

Starting with STOP means gradually mastering its benefits and learning to recognize when we fall into a state of anticipation and when to STOP. Basically, it’s about being a bit of an investigator of ourselves. It’s something you have to practise. Humans are like that; it’s normal to create scenarios. Our brain wants to protect itself in advance from a dangerous situation. Are these scenarios taking over my life? Then STOP!

I can’t catch a horse that’s exuberant, nervous and running. But I can refocus, breathe and be in the moment. You’d be surprised how, 99% of the time, when I perform the STOP technique, the horse in me calms down. It’s interesting to see that when you settle into the present moment, you become more available. It’s up to us to become the grounding point.

Can you give us a concrete example?

A caregiver’s husband has Alzheimer’s. His father also had the disease, and it was a trying time. The caregiver has an idea of what’s to come… Yes, but today and right now, the husband is quiet, watching TV. He’s just helped her wash the dishes and everything’s going great. STOP is a grounding point: five minutes to catch your breath.

For the caregiver, the present moment is a delicate one: fatigue, guilt, holiday preparations and so on. You might even want to get away from it all!

The more we rely on the STOP technique, the more natural the approach becomes. It won’t take away the stress or the hectic pace of daily life. Unfortunately, time is a non-renewable resource. So it’s important to take the time to stop and say: “Okay, I’ll stop now.”

How can we separate what we accept from our current situation and our need for resources, services, respite or support from those around us?

I think it’s important to plan ahead without getting bogged down in scenarios. It can be beneficial for a caregiver to prepare for the future. There are two ways of using an agenda. You can write the to-do list, then close the agenda, or … leave the agenda open! That way, the list stays on our minds, and we get caught up in the scenarios.

When a caregiver needs services and resources, it’s perfectly normal to be filled with this thought and to be proactive in finding services. But we have to be careful not to become hyperactive by lapsing into anticipation. Anticipation is a caregiver’s enemy; planning is their ally.

I’ll give you a word, you answer with a thought…


Being under a comforter, in front of a fire, with the smell of wood drifting by.

Family ties:

The holiday season is not an easy one for caregivers. There can be conflicts and differences of opinion in the family, but why not take advantage of this time of year for a little more tolerance and kindness?


Hum, I have to think about it! To caregivers, I hope you’ll take advantage of nature’s period of calm to refocus inwardly.


Strength and power, combined with gentleness and fragility.

A big thank you to Sylvie Desbiens for this conversation, which felt like a warm, soft blanket, with the scent of herbal tea and a roaring fireplace as a bonus!

For more information

Did you like this article?

Subscribe to the Appuilettre, the Newsletter for caregivers, and receive each month, testimonials, thematic files and interviews.

east Subscribe to the Appuilettre

Need to talk?

Contact our Caregiver Support Helpline for counselling, information and referrals.

Every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Free of charge.

call  Caregiver info :  1 855 852-7784
Live Chat