Updated April 21, 2022 – I was a caregiver for both of my parents during the last years of their lives. As much as you love your family members and want to help, it’s a stressful job! This happens for several reasons and often creeps up on a caregiver slowly, until they are overwhelmed and unsure of how they got there.
What are three signs of caregiver stress?
- Feeling frequently worried or often feels overwhelmed.
- Disconnecting from loved ones and loss of interest in things you used to enjoy.
- Physical problems, such as headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, fatigue or weight changes.
What Is Caregiver Stress Known As?
Caregiver stress syndrome is also known as caregiver burnout. Caregiver burnout can occur when the stress of caring for a loved one becomes overwhelming.
When informal caregivers feel overloaded, they also begin to feel hopeless and disconnected. They may also have difficulty sleeping, eating, or taking care of themselves. If you are a caregiver, it is important to be aware of the signs of caregiver burnout symptoms.
Here are three of them:
1. Feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, irritable or “on edge”. If you are constantly feeling overwhelmed by your caregiving duties, it may be a sign that you are suffering from caregiver stress.
You may feel like you can’t do anything right, or that you’re not good enough.You might also feel isolated or like you have been deserted and left to do everything on your own (which may be true). This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair.
2. Disconnecting from loved ones and reduced interest in doing things you used to enjoy.
Caregivers often put their own needs last, which can lead to disconnection from friends and family members. If you find yourself withdrawing from social activities or isolating yourself, it may be a sign of caregiver stress.
3. Difficulty taking care of yourself. When caregivers neglect their own needs, it can lead to problems such as poor diet, insomnia, and inadequate exercise. If you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s likely that your stress is taking a toll on your health.
And, if you notice physical problems, such as headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, fatigue or weight changes, your stress is definitely affecting you.
What Causes Caregiver Stress?
First off, when we love someone, as family caregivers, we tend to throw ourselves headlong into role of caregiver for them – or at least that’s what I did.
In my case, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor at age 88, which left my then 93-year-old father as her primary caregiver. He had never undertaken a caregiving role in his life because my parents were from the era when women did everything household-related.
Dad had no idea how to cook, help Mom dress or bathe, or pay bills. And, as a care recipient who was used to doing everything by herself, Mom had a few unrealistic expectations of him, given his emotional stress over her diagnosis and his lack of experience.
So I dropped as much of my life as possible and took over as much of the caregiving responsibilities as I could.
The problem was, I was working full time and my parents lived an 80-mile round trip away – but I drove up to their house every day I was off work and often after work as well.
I took care of as much as possible for them: I cooked meals that only needed to be reheated, paid bills, advocated with hospice and the home care aide they hired part time.
I often got there early in the morning and left at bed time. I had little time to relax and there was no such thing as a weekend or a day off.
In the meantime, my husband stepped in as much as possible at home, but I still had duties there that he couldn’t help with. Which meant I had other “jobs” to do after I got home.
Looking back at all these red flags, you can see why a home caregiver could burn out under these high levels of stress.
What Are The Effects Of A Caregiver Burden?
When your daily routine becomes one of constantly running around and helping others, you have to give up something. Many times, that means neglecting your own physical health and enduring poor sleep patterns (because you keep waking up and mulling over what has to be done the next day).
This results in a dramatic increase in stress levels – both emotionally and physically.
Caregivers often are so busy caring for others that they tend to neglect their own emotional, physical and spiritual health. The demands on a caregiver’s body, mind and emotions can easily seem overwhelming, leading to fatigue, hopelessness and ultimately burnout.The Cleveland Clinic
The Mayo Clinic reports that “risk factors for caregiver stress include:
- Being female
- Having fewer years of formal education
- Living with the person you are caring for
- Social isolation
- Having depression
- Financial difficulties
- Higher number of hours spent caregiving
- Lack of coping skills and difficulty solving problems
- Lack of choice in being a caregiver”
And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, caregiver burnout symptoms shows up in the form of:
- Frequently worried or feeling overwhelmed
- Constantly “on edge” or irritable
- Physical problems, such as headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, fatigue or weight changes
- Reduced interest in doing things you used to enjoy
- You might also feel isolated or like you have been deserted and left to do everything on your own (which may be true)
If caregiver stress is left unchecked, it can lead to serious consequences. Caregivers who are constantly stressed may experience health problems, like high blood pressure or insomnia.
Other health effects of chronic stress headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, fatigue, and muscle tension. In addition, higher levels of stress can weaken the immune system, making caregivers more susceptible to getting sick.
Chronic caregiver stress can lead to a number of problems with emotional health, as well. This includes having symptoms of anxiety anxiety or depression, irritability, and anger – not to mention burnout.
When a busy caregiver feels emotionally and physically exhausted, they may struggle to continue caring for their loved one.
If you’re experiencing any of the signs of burnout, it’s important to reach out for help. Talk to your doctor, a friend or family member, or a professional counselor. They can offer support and guidance on how to cope with caregiver stress.
There are also many online resources available, like joining a caregiver support group or interacting on forums.
How Do You Destress As A Caregiver? (How To Avoid Caregiver Burnout)
If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by symptoms of caregiver burnout, it’s important to reach out for help before mental and physical exhaustion sets in.
While you can’t avoid all caregiver burnout symptoms, you can fend off, reduce or eliminate some of them by:
Asking for and accepting help: Be sure to ask for a specific form of help, though, instead of just hinting that you need it. Trust me, people either don’t pick up on the hint or your being vague will give them an out for ignoring the need.
Instead of saying, “Geez, I’ve got a ton of things to do for Mom this week” and hoping your sibling will offer to take something off your plate, say, “Liz, can you take Mom to her doctor appointment this Tuesday at 11:00 a.m.?” And, if Liz declines, don’t let her off the hook – make another specific request.
Whom do you ask for help? Family, friends, church members, the hospice social worker if your loved one is under hospice care, or resources such as adult daycare programs.
If there is money available, consider hiring a part time home health aide to help with your loved one’s personal needs, such as toileting, dressing, bathing and so forth.
There are many resources available to caregivers, so don’t hesitate to ask for support. Local caregiving resources may also be found through the National Eldercare Locator or contact the Area Agency on Aging.
Here are some different ways to regain a little bit of your peace of mind:
Be realistic: You can only do so much before it starts to impact your own health (or finances, or job – what have you).
As much as you’d like to do the ten things Dad is asking you to do, pick the most important ones and let the others go. I promise the world will not stop spinning if you don’t accomplish everything on your “to-do” list.
Take a break: It’s important to take breaks when you can, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Sometimes, just walking around the block or playing a game on your phone can be enough to get your head out of the stress and give you a brief mental health “vacation.”
Set aside time for yourself – every day: Have coffee with a friend (even virtually!), take an hour to read a book, write your thoughts in a journal, treat yourself to a long, hot bath – whatever it takes to get your out of the hectic caregiving world and give you a moment or two of peace. But do this every, single day. You really do need a mental and physical break from caregiving.
Take care of your own health: Be sure to keep up with your own doctor appointments (especially when you are under such stress!).
If you are taking medications, take them on time and consistently (and get them refilled!). Shop for healthy foods and eat a balanced diet instead of fast foods. Take a walk to clear your head. Do yoga online or in a class. Use an exercise video or find one on YouTube.
Joining a support group: Sometimes, you just need to vent and be understood, right? Well, people in support groups understand what you are going through. To find one, do an online search for groups near you or join an online support group. Or, ask the hospice social worker for local groups.
Mentalizing Imagery Therapy (MIT) – This is a new therapeutic technique that uses mentalization and mindfulness to help caregivers overcome the stress and depression that often comes with caring for a senior loved one.
…new research has shown [mentalizing imagery therapy] is more than 40% more effective at reducing feelings of depression.seniorsmatter.com
Recommended Caregiver Fatigue Books
These books can also give you helpful advice to make your caregiver role a little easier:
Caring For A Loved One With Dementia: A Mindfulness-Based Guide For Reducing Stress And Making the Best Of Your Journey Together by Marguerite Manteau-Rao LCSW and Kevin Barrows, MD
Put Your Mask On First: The Caregiver’s Guide To Self Care by Dr. Gary Bradt and Scott Silknitter
Take Back Your Life: A Caregiver’s Guide To Finding Freedom In The Midst Of Overwhelm by Loren M. Gelberg-Goff