The Reality of Being a Caregiver: Signs of Stress and How to Prevent Burnout

By: The University of Pennsylvania Medicine 

A son or daughter caring for an aging parent, a friend caring for another friend in need, a parent caring for a child who is ill, a paid caregiver — caregivers come in many different forms. All caregiver roles are equally important, and they may also be equally stressful.

Caregivers provide care for someone with an injury, illness or disability. Care can range from helping around the house to making health and financial decisions on their loved one’s behalf. Caregiving tasks range from helping around the house, helping with activities of daily living such as showering, toileting, bathing and feeding.

“If the stress of caregiving isn’t addressed, it can lead to health problems, such as depression, anxiety, obesity and serious chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes,” explains Laura Kotler-Klein, MSS, LCSW, DSW, social work manager at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania.

It can also lead to burnout, which can end up limiting the care you’re able to provide to your loved one. While it’s natural to focus on the health of your loved one who needs extra assistance, it’s just as important to focus on yourself. By recognizing the signs of caregiver stress, you may be able to manage — or even prevent — burnout.

What Is the Role of a Caregiver?

Your responsibilities as a caregiver are unique. They vary based on the needs of your loved one, and they may even change along with your loved one’s medical condition. However, one thing remains the same: These tasks can be time-consuming and potentially exhausting.

Some responsibilities of a caregiver include:

  • Grocery shopping and cooking
  • Housework, such as cleaning
  • Financial tasks, such as paying bills
  • Giving medicine
  • Helping your loved one eat
  • Helping your loved one bathe and dress
  • Providing emotional support
  • Coordinating care, scheduling appointments, accompanying the patient to appointments, taking detailed medical notes, and transporting the patient.

In many cases, caregivers are on call 24 hours a day — which can leave little to no time for yourself. Whether you’ve been caring for your loved one for two weeks or two years, it can take a toll on your well-being, and it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of caregiver stress to address it right away.

It is also not unusual to see changes in family dynamics. Some family members who cannot provide care may feel guilty and become critical, thinking they are being helpful. Every situation is unique. If you are the main caregiver, let the critical family member know their criticism is not helpful, but that you could use more practical help such as more sharing of responsibilities, more frequent visits or financial contributions toward hiring help.

Avoid Burnout: Recognize the Signs of Caregiver Stress

There’s no one way to experience caregiver stress. “You may feel waves of emotions, such as frustration to anger to helplessness. You may make mistakes during care, such as giving the wrong dosage of medications,” explains Kotler-Klein. No matter the version of stress you experience, it’s critical that you notice it and take action.

Here are some common signs of caregiver stress:

  • Changes in appetite, such as eating too much or too little
  • Negative emotions, such as hopelessness, depression or feelings of alienation
  • Loss of control, either physically or emotionally
  • Poor treatment of the loved one you are caring for
  • Problems sleeping, such as trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Use of alcohol, medications or sleeping pills in an attempt to feel better

Many of these signs of stress come from the same place: the feeling of not having enough time to yourself. It’s important not to ignore these signs, as they’ll only get worse if you do. By making sure you take care of your own well-being, you can maintain your physical and mental health, and get back to providing the care your loved one needs.

Preventing and Addressing Caregiver Stress

If you’re just beginning to feel overwhelmed or you’ve been experiencing stress for a while now, it’s time to take steps to address your feelings and prevent them from getting worse. The most effective way to do this is to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally.

Taking Care of Your Physical Health

“Family caregivers spend an average of over 24 hours a week providing care — that’s more than an entire day you don’t have for yourself,” says Kotler-Klein. This may lead to frequent fast-food trips, skipped workouts and less sleep. And even though it may be challenging to prioritize your own physical health, it’s critical to do so to avoid problems down the road, such as heart disease and bone loss.

Taking care of your physical health as a caregiver includes:

  • Eating healthy. You may want to plan meals ahead of time, cook nutritious meals for both you and your loved one, or keep some quick but healthy snacks on hand.
  • Avoiding stress eating. Even if it’s been a particularly hard day, resist the urge to try to feel better by eating junk food.
  • Staying active. Try taking mini exercise breaks throughout the day instead of all at once. If possible, find ways to be active with the person you’re caring for.
  • Getting enough sleep. Aim for at least seven to eight hours each night.
  • Try to go outside every day for at least 10 minutes in the morning or mid-afternoon. Sunlight and the outdoors are powerful tools in fighting depression.
  • Make time for the things you enjoy. Ask for help so that you can go to a movie, meet a friend or go shopping.

Taking Care of Your Mental Health

Caregivers often prioritize their loved ones, which can leave less time to do the things they enjoy. In fact, caregivers report that positive activities in their lives are reduced by nearly 30 percent as a result of their care-giving responsibilities. “These responsibilities can leave you feeling overwhelmed, unhappy and isolated,” adds Kotler-Klein. Fortunately, there are ways to lessen these negative effects of caregiving.

Taking care of your mental health as a caregiver includes:

  • Finding time for yourself. Set aside time for yourself every day — even if it’s just 30 minutes — to read, exercise or talk with a friend.
  • Asking for help from family, friends and neighbors. Ask someone you trust to stop in while you take a walk or go to the gym.
  • Managing stressful moments. If you’re feeling frustrated, take a few deep breaths and know when to take a couple of minutes to yourself.
  • Getting support from others, such as family, friends and healthcare providers. Don’t let your negative feelings fester — address them right away to keep them from getting worse.

Learn to set boundaries.

  • Say no to non-essential demands on your time.
  • Find ways to make time for activities and people that are important to you. Get professional help if caregiving seems overwhelming.
  • Consider joining a support group for caregivers, as well. Other caregivers’ experiences may be similar to yours, and they may be able to provide you with some tips and support as you face some of the same challenges.

Find Ways to Help Your Loved One and Yourself

“Being a caregiver means you have extra responsibilities on your plate, but there are ways to make them more manageable,” explains Kotler-Klein. “For example, staying organized with a daily routine or to-do list can help you prioritize what needs to be done now and what can wait.”

Don’t hesitate to ask for help, either. Talk to your loved one’s healthcare provider to learn ways to better and more efficiently care for their needs. And if you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, ask another family member or friend to help out every once in a while.

Also, if you’re financially able to, consider taking a break from your job. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires most employers to allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for eligible employees to care for a relative. Check with your insurance company and the patient’s insurance company to see if there are resources for caregiving, respite care or mental health services.

Remember: The person you are caring for deserves the best version of yourself — well-rested, renewed and refreshed. They wouldn’t want you to ignore your own needs and end up physically or mentally exhausted. By noticing the signs of caregiver stress, you can stay happy and healthy while providing the care your loved one needs.

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