Caregiver Stress and Burnout
November is National Family Caregiver Month. Being a primary caregiver for a family member in need is one of the most honorable, yet challenging and stressful roles a person can undertake. Whether caring for an elderly loved one, or someone of any age with a disability, or a chronic medical or mental health condition, being a caregiver is often a physically and emotionally draining responsibility. The good news is that there are resources and coping strategies that can help.
Recognizing Caregiver Burnout
Balancing the needs of the loved one and that of the caregiver can present many challenges. Often, caregivers find themselves neglecting their own needs, family life, self-care routines, etc. simply because there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day. If caregiver burnout is not addressed, it can take a toll on your health, relationships and emotional well-being. Signs and symptoms of burnout include:
- Physical, emotional, mental exhaustion
- Excessive worry and anxiety
- Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
- Changes in appetite and/or sleep patterns
- Loss of interest in normal activities
- Self-harming and/or suicidal ideation
- Chronic illness or other physical ailments
- Substance or alcohol abuse
How to Manage Stress and Avoid Caregiver Burnout
There are many coping skills and strategies that can help caregivers minimize stress and regain a sense of balance. Here are some recommendations:
- Ask for help. There is no shame in asking others for help. Everyone has their limits.Inform other family members or friends that you need some assistance and/or hire outside help to give you some respite. Make it a team effort so no one caregiver is working in isolation.
- Seek guidance and support. Online and community peer support groups for caregivers can be helpful. Being a part of a group with similar experiences provides emotional support and helps to alleviate the feeling of being alone. Support groups share information, insights, caregiving strategies, and resources that can help to combat caregiver stress and burnout.
- Improve self-care. Prioritizing self-care is the key to establishing wellness and regaining balance. Some self-care strategies include:
- Get adequate sleep
- Eat a healthy diet
- Stay hydrated
- Exercise regularly
- Engage in meaningful and relaxing activities
- Socialize with loved ones
- Address medical concerns as soon as possible
- Journal or engage in mental health therapy to process thoughts/feelings
- Set healthy boundaries to unnecessary stressors
- Practice self-compassion and love
- Be realistic about your capabilities/limitations to avoid overextending yourself
- Take breaks/vacations
- Humor can balance out negativity - watch or listen to comedy, uplifting music and any other stress reducing activities that work for you.
- Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can from trusted sources about your loved one’s condition so that you are setting realistic expectations for yourself as a caregiver and for them. If they need a higher level of care than what you can reasonably provide, you may need to explore other care options. Understand that if you are in a healthy emotional, physical and mental state because you are taking care of yourself, you will inevitably be a better caregiver to your loved one. Your loved one does not want you to sacrifice your own health and well-being to care for them. Love them more by loving yourself first.
When to Seek Professional Help for Caregiver Burnout
Stress and burn out symptoms are quite common among caregivers and can usually be managed by the strategies mentioned in this article. However, if the symptoms are ignored, or endured for too long, they can develop into more serious medical or mental health conditions. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible:
- Moderate to severe chronic depression symptoms (fatigue, loss of interest in normal activities, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, difficulty concentrating, suicidal ideation, sadness, hopelessness, etc.)
- Moderate to severe chronic anxiety symptoms (racing thoughts, irritability, restlessness, excessive worry, trembling, feelings of impending doom, intrusive thoughts, fear, etc.).
- Physical symptoms. Any physical symptoms that may indicate an underlying medical condition (i.e. chronic fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, frequent illnesses from vulnerable immune system, pain, gastrointestinal issues, etc.) as chronic stress can cause heart problems, stroke, diabetes, and other serious health problems.
- Substance abuse. If you find yourself relying on drugs or alcohol to help you cope with stress and burnout, it’s time to get some professional help from a mental health or substance abuse treatment provider.
- Suicidal or homicidal thoughts, feelings, urges or intentions. If you are in imminent danger of hurting yourself or others, please call 911 or go to your local emergency room.
- Difficulty with day-to-day functioning. If you find yourself having difficulty with day-to-day functioning (unable to uphold necessary responsibilities/routines in any area of your life), you should seek medical or mental health attention as soon as possible.
Maintaining a healthy sense of balance is the key to providing care to others without compromising your own personal well-being. A clear understanding of the tasks and responsibilities involved in providing care, and setting realistic expectation for yourself and your loved one, will go a long way to help reduce stress and prevent burnout. Involve others so you have an opportunity to take a break and practice self-care. Most importantly, understand that you can’t do it all. Know your limitations and recognize when your physical/mental health is compromised and reach out for help.
Emily Collingham, LCPC, NCC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor and national certified counselor providing therapy for all ages in Brook Lane’s Outpatient program in Frederick, MD. She has over 16 years of experience in working with children, adolescents and adults, 8 years of which were spent in the field of supported employment and case management for individuals with disabilities. Emily is a graduate of the University of Maryland University College and she holds a Master’s Degree in Community Counseling from Argosy University, Washington DC.