Caregivers play a vital role in the lives of people unable to care for themselves. Still, caring for others can be inherently stressful.
Caregiver stress, also known as caregiver stress syndrome, is a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caregivers experience. They may also experience:
- depression, in some cases
Caregivers manage the physical and emotional needs of people unable to care for themselves. Caregivers are often:
- social workers
“The exhaustion caregivers feel is amplified by the fact that they often don’t have the time necessary to care for themselves, leaving them depleted and at risk for burnout, anxiety, and depression,” says Kaitlin Soulé, a licensed marriage family therapist and a specialist in women’s mental health, parenting, and anxiety.
Soulé says that though the signs of burnout may look slightly different for everyone, there are many shared characteristics, such as:
- feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion
- loss of interest in things that one used to enjoy
- social isolation and withdrawal from family and friends
- feelings of resentment and anger
- feelings that you want to hurt yourself or the person you are caring for
- change in appetite
- weight gain or weight loss
There are many causes of caregiver stress. Here are a few of them.
Not meeting their own needs
Caregiver stress is most commonly caused by the demanding nature of the role.
“When we’re in a position to care for somebody else or multiple people (parents of multiple children, nurses, etc.), it becomes challenging to find time and space to get our most basic needs met, let alone find the time to do things we enjoy,” Soulé explains.
Though it’s vital to get our basic needs met, there’s also value in spending time doing nothing or engaging in fun activities.
“When caregivers do have windows of time for themselves, they may struggle to know how to use their time or feel guilty that they’re not with the person they believe they should be caring for,” says Soulé.
Lack of boundaries
Poor boundaries can also lead to increased stress for caregivers.
“As a result of spending so much time loving and caring for others, caregivers can lose sight of their own identity, enmeshing their sense of self with the person or people they are caring for,” Soulé says.
Trying to manage overlapping health concerns
Caregivers often face numerous health issues at the same time.
“Family caregivers are taking on complicated responsibilities. As people live longer, we generally have multiple overlapping challenges,” says Claudia Fine, MPH, a licensed clinical social worker.
“People are now less likely to die of a heart attack and more likely to live long enough to get dementia, glaucoma, diabetes, and arthritis all at once,” says Fine, the chief professional officer at eFamilyCare, a digital platform that connects family caregivers to specialists.
Lack of professional training
In many cases, caregivers haven’t received training and are caregiving in their free time.
“Without support navigating the health system, understanding health conditions, and understanding what to expect, how to plan, what to ask doctors, how to respond to resistance to care and other common challenges, caregivers are at very high risk of burnout, which is harmful to themselves as well as their loved ones who need them,” Fine explains.
The pressure of feeling responsible for another person’s well-being
Having someone else’s health in your hands is stressful.
“Just being concerned or feeling responsible for another person can be stressful,” Fine says.
“Add to that the constant stream of emergencies caregivers face every time a loved one is hospitalized, receives a new diagnosis, shows signs of abuse or neglect by a facility or home aide, etc., and you can easily see how the stress and burnout can become an issue,” she adds.
There are ways to manage stress if you’re a caregiver. Here are five strategies to consider.
1. Set boundaries
The most important thing one can do to manage caregiver-related stress is to set boundaries.
“Boundaries allow us to both care for ourselves and others at the same time,” Soulé explains.
2. Find a support system
Speaking with people who know what you’re going through can be comforting.
“It can be really helpful to connect with other caregivers who are feeling similar to you, or other people who have overcome caregiver syndrome both so you can feel less alone and so you can get support and guidance,” Soulé explains.
Though caregiving can be so exhausting that you don’t feel like connecting with others, social isolation can make you feel worse.
3. Focus on the good
Rather than dwelling on the person’s declining health, think about their strengths.
“As you care for your loved one, resist the natural urge to focus on everything that’s been lost, be that their mobility, their cognition, or something else,” says Fine.
“When you support their strengths, you preserve the essence of who they are and some of the relationship you have with them. If you don’t, then all you have left is the sickness.”
4. Don’t neglect self-care
If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you expect to care for someone else? Whether meditation, yoga, or a relaxing bath, consider finding healthy ways to recharge and care for yourself.
5. Ask for help
When you’re feeling drained, you may find it helpful to reach out to someone who can assist with the physical and emotional responsibilities of caregiving.
Sharing the load may help reduce your stress levels and even make you a better caregiver.
If you’re emotionally overwhelmed, consider speaking with a mental health professional.
Caregiver stress is often the result of not looking after your personal needs. Consider seeking support, whether talking with someone who has a similar experience or a therapist. Caring for yourself in this way will allow you to express how you’re feeling.
Also, setting boundaries can help minimize your daily stress. One option is to create an action plan addressing the experiences that are overwhelming you.
Finally, if you feel you’ve taken on too much, you might find that taking a step back to reset and recharge benefits your well-being.
Here are more resources for caregivers: