Caregiver burnout and strategies for coping
Caring for a loved one may be rewarding, but it can also be very stressful. The emotions that cause this stress (caregiver burden) may feel overwhelming at times, but there are healthy ways to navigate them. If you’re a caregiver, it’s important to give yourself grace and remember that negative thoughts and feelings are normal.
What causes caregiver burnout?
Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional and/or mental exhaustion that can create an overall sense of stress and negativity. As a caregiver, you may know how crucial it is to keep yourself healthy, happy and confident in your role. It helps to know what might cause caregiver burnout so you can take steps to prevent it. Common causes include:1
- Role confusion: It’s important to separate your role and expectations as caregiver vs. your role as a spouse, parent or friend.
- Unrealistic expectations: You may expect to see a positive change in the person you’re caring for. However, that may not be the case for people living with certain diseases, like Alzheimer’s or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
- Lack of control: Having limited time, resources and skills to properly care for your loved one may cause frustration. You may feel like you’re not doing enough.
- Unreasonable demands: You may feel obligated to take on tasks that you may not necessarily need to. (That’s where defining your role becomes helpful.)
- Lack of self-awareness: You may not recognize when you’re at a breaking point until it starts to affect your own health and well-being.
What are the signs of caregiver burnout?
Caregiver burnout can look similar to any high-stress situation and create the same kind of symptoms. Be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. Things to watch for include:1
Feeling overwhelmed or worried
Often feeling tired
Getting too much or too little sleep
Gaining or losing weight
Easily becoming upset
Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
Often feeling sad
Having frequent headaches or bodily pain
Abusing alcohol or drugs (including prescription medications)
What are strategies for coping with caregiver burnout?
Finding healthy ways to navigate the many emotions of being a caregiver will help support your physical and mental well-being. When you’re able to show up as your best self, the loved one you’re caring for will also benefit. Read on to learn about ways to cope with all the emotions you may feel as a caregiver.
Helping someone on an ongoing basis can be hard, especially if your care recipient cannot be appreciative or accepting of the aid you provide. Sometimes controlling your emotions can seem nearly impossible. Flare-ups and feeling like you’re on your last nerve often comes with the job.
Forgive yourself. Find constructive ways to express yourself, learn to walk away and give yourself a time out. It’s also healthy to find supportive people who will let you vent about what’s triggering your feelings of anger.
Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, the inability to experience joy, trouble sleeping, anxiety — these are all symptoms of depression. Caregivers are an at-risk group for developing depression, so stay mindful and honest about how you’re feeling day-to-day.
Don’t ignore symptoms of depression. Make an appointment to see your doctor or a mental health professional as soon as you can to talk about a plan for dealing with depression. This plan may include exercise, therapy or medication.
The worst-case scenarios and “what ifs” that come with being responsible for another person’s health and well-being can cause anxiety and downright fear when they start consuming your thoughts.
Have a contingency plan in place to lower your anxiety. For example, if you’re worried about what would happen if you have a personal emergency, ask a friend to be your back-up “on call” caregiver. Also, be sure to talk to someone you trust who can offer a calming perspective on the things that are scaring you
Caregiver guilt is common because of the expectations we can put on ourselves. Sometimes we tell ourselves we "should" think or do certain things, like "we should be more patient" or "we should never be irritated." It can feel like a lot of pressure.
Forgive yourself and set realistic standards. Perfection is not the goal. Be proud for wanting to be an excellent caregiver — and at the same time, give yourself some slack when excellence doesn’t happen.
Respite care for caregivers
Maybe you’ve considered respite care as a way to give yourself a temporary break from your caregiver duties. Respite care comes in many forms. You can ask a friend or family member to care for your loved one for a few hours a day or week, or you can look into an official respite care facility. There are lots of options, which makes finding the right kind of support easier than you may think.
Who can I see for help with caregiver burnout?
If you’re struggling with physical or mental symptoms of caregiver burnout, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. They’ll have recommendations for healthy ways to deal with the stress you’re feeling. There may also be mental health programs available to help with coping. Each person’s coping journey will look different. Some options may include talking to a therapist, journaling, lifestyle changes or maybe even finding a way to share your caregiving duties with another person.