The 7 Deadly Emotions of Caregiving


Nobody would ever choose a smiley face as the perfect symbolic emoticon for a caregiver. Caregiving for an ailing loved one is just too stressful -- often triggering damaging emotions that can not only undermine your good work but harm your health, as well. Here's how to cope:

Caregiver Emotion Trap #1: Guilt

Guilt is virtually unavoidable as you try to "do it all."

What causes guilt: Guilt stems from doing or saying what you believe is the wrong thing, not doing what you perceive to be enough, or otherwise not behaving in the "right" way, whether or not your perceptions are accurate. Caregivers often burden themselves with a long list of self-imposed "oughts," "shoulds," and "musts." A few examples: I must avoid putting Mom in a nursing home. I ought to visit every day. I shouldn't lose my temper with someone who has dementia.

Risks of guilt: Caregiver guilt is an especially corrosive emotion because you're beating yourself up over faults that are imagined, unavoidable -- or simply human. That's counterproductive at a time when you need to be your own best advocate.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

What you can do: Lower your standards from ideal to real; aim for a B+ in the many aspects of your life rather than an across-the-board A+. When guilt nags, ask yourself what's triggering it: A rigid "ought"? An unrealistic belief about your abilities? Above all, recognize that guilt is virtually unavoidable. Because your intentions are good but your time, resources, and skills are limited, you're just plain going to feel guilty sometimes -- so try to get comfortable with that gap between perfection and reality instead of beating yourself up over it.

Caregiver Emotion Trap #2: Resentment

This emotion is still so taboo that many caregivers are loathe to admit it.

What causes resentment: Caregivers often feel put-upon and upset because of imagined slights by others, including siblings and adult children who don't do enough to help. Caregiver resentment is especially felt toward the person being cared for, when the caregiver's life feels hijacked by responsibility and out of his or her own control.

Risks of resentment: Without enough support or noncaregiving outlets, feelings of being ignored, abandoned, or criticized can fester into anger and depression.

What you can do: Simply naming this tricky emotion to a trusted confidante can bring some release. Try venting to a journal or anonymous blog. Know that resentment is a very natural and common response to long-term caregiving, especially if your work life, marriage, health, or outside activities are compromised as a result. Know, too, that you can feel this complicated emotion yet still be a good person and a good caregiver.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

Caregiver Emotion Trap #3: Anger

Some people outwardly show their anger more than others, but almost no one is never angry.

What causes anger: We get mad for reasons both direct (a balky loved one, an unfair criticism, one too many mishaps in a day) and indirect (lack of sleep, frustration over lack of control, pent-up disappointment).

Risks of anger: Chronic anger and hostility have been linked to high blood pressure, heart attack and heart disease, digestive-tract disorders, and headaches. Anger that builds up unexpressed can lead to depression or anxiety, while anger that explodes outward can jeopardize relationships and even harm others. Managing caregiver anger not only helps your well-being but makes you less likely to take out your fury on your loved one.

What you can do: Rather than trying to avoid anger, learn to express it in healthy ways. Simple deep-breathing exercises can channel mounting anger into a calmer state, for example. Talk yourself down with soothing chants: It's okay. Let it go. Ask yourself if there's a constructive solution to situations that make you angry: Is a compromise possible? Would being more assertive (which is different from anger) help you feel a sense of control? Laughing at absurdities and idiotic behavior can provide a healthier biological release than snapping.

Caregiver Emotion Trap #4: Worry

A little goes a long way, but sometimes we can't turn off the fretting.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

What causes worry: Good intentions, love, and wanting the best for your loved ones are the wellsprings of worry. Focusing intensely on the what-ifs provides a perverse kind of comfort to the brain: If we're worrying, we're engaged. Of course, that ultimately triggers more worry and upset because it's engagement without accomplishing anything.

Risks of worry: Being concerned is harmless. Overworry and obsessing, however, can disrupt sleep, cause headaches and stomach aches, and lead to mindless eating or undereating.

What you can do: If you notice worrying thoughts interfering with getting through the day or sleeping at night, force a break to the cycle. Try setting a timer and resolving to focus on something else when the five minutes is up. Then flip negative thoughts to their productive side: How can you help? Who can you call? Are there possible solutions? And don't be shy about seeking out a trained counselor to help you express and redirect obsessive ruminations more constructively.

Caregiver Emotion Trap #5: Loneliness

Your world can shrink almost before you realize what's happened.

What causes loneliness: Friends may back away out of uncertainty or a belief they aren't wanted. Intense time demands lead you to drop out of outside activities. If you're dealing with dementia, the loss of your loved one's former level of companionship is another keenly felt social loss adding to isolation.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

Risks of loneliness: Your very brain is altered: People with large, rich social networks have different brain structures, new research finds. Loneliness seems to curb willpower and the ability to persevere, and it can lead to overeating, smoking, and overuse of alcohol. Lonely people also have more cortisol, the stress hormone. And social isolation is a risk factor for dementia.

What you can do: Expand your social circles, real and virtual. Arrange respite help, so you can add at least one outside activity, such as one you've dropped. Take the initiative to reach out to old friends and invite them over if you can't get out easily. Consider joining a support group related to caregiving or your loved one's illness. In online support groups, you can find kinship with those who know just what you're going through.

Caregiver Emotion Trap #6: Grief

Don't think this one applies yet? Think again.

What causes grief: Although most people link grief with death, anticipatory grief is a similar emotion felt by caregivers who are coping with a loved one's long-term chronic illness, especially when there are clear losses of ability (as in dementia) or when the diagnosis is almost certainly terminal.

Risks of grief: "Long good-byes" can trigger guilt as well as sadness if one mistakenly believes that it's inappropriate to grieve someone still alive. Mourning the loss of a beloved companion is also a risk factor for depression.

What you can do: Know that your feelings are normal and as painful as "real" (postmortem) grief. Allow yourself to feel sadness and express it to your loved one as well as to supportive others; pasting on a happy face belies the truth and can be frustrating to the person who knows he or she is ill or dying. Make time for yourself so that you're living a life outside of caregiving that will support you both now and later.

Caregiver Emotion Trap #7: Defensiveness

Protecting yourself is good -- to a point.

What causes defensiveness: When you're doing so much, it's only natural to bristle at suggestions that there might be different or better approaches. Especially if you're feeling stressed, insecure, or unsure, hearing comments or criticisms by others, or reading information that's contrary to your views, can inspire a knee-jerk response of self-protection: "I'm right; that's wrong!"

Risks of defensiveness: While nobody knows your loved one and your situation as well as you do, being overly defensive can make you closed-minded. You risk losing out on real help. You may be so close to the situation that you can't see the forest for the trees, for example; a social worker or friend may have a perspective that points to what really might be a better way.

What you can do: Try not to take everything you hear personally. Instead of immediately getting cross or discarding others' input, vow to pause long enough to consider it. Remember the big picture. Is there merit in a new idea, or not? What you're hearing as a criticism of you might be a well-intentioned attempt to help your loved one. You may decide things are fine as is, and that's great. But if you start from a point of calm and confidence, the focus becomes (as it should be) your loved one, not you.

20 days ago, said...

I know just how hard it can be being the only caregiver, I totally understand the conflicting emotions. I know that some of you can not afford outside help,but I just have to preach this over and over to all the wonderful caregivers out there. PLEASE!!! Call ever agency out there that might be able to help,I was finally able to get Aging and Disability to help us. It was to late to save are relationship as a couple, but it saved are friendship. So please don't be afraid to reach out to your local churches,highschool's (yes high schools,they have kids wanting to learn nursing and such,plus some have volunteer senior projects to do.) help is out there ,but you have to be willing to take what you can get at the time and way it is offered. And please don't stop doing things you like,heck the things we like are the only thing that keeps us going. Those that say they don't travel any more,well my brother in a wheelchair and has ALS and he not quitting his traveling,he not done with life he says and by golly he going to keep trying to do what he loves ,so keep doing what you like to do,thou it may involve a lot of extra prepping and planning it will be worth it.

21 days ago, said...

Lately I'm trying to take it lying down. I'm like a boxer that's been knocked down, and taking punches while floored -- because I know I'm in a no-win situation. I've been told to "accept it", and that "this too shall pass". I think I understand what all that means, but that again means I'm fighting back. I don't want to fight it. I know I'm beaten. It also means I'm going to have to close out the only universe I know. These are extremely intricate circumstances which words cannot describe. Going from one wall to another. @Jaslynk I might understand what it means when you say you haven't been able to travel overseas. I used to travel to Europe all the time, but not for last 2 years. Someone asked me, what will you achieve by traveling? I'd ask them back, what will I achieve by NOT traveling.

29 days ago, said...

Why can't I wrap my head around what happened to my son and our family It's been almost a year. Why do things seem harder aso opposed to easier? Anybody? ?

about 1 month ago, said...

I am a 24/7 caregiver for my mum. I have been taking care of her for more than 3 years. She is 88 yrs old with 10 yrs old IQ. Her conditions is getting worst this days. Hidding her pills under her toungue instead of swallowing them, hate showers, slap me when she is angry. Bite my fingers if I don't follow her way. You name it she done it. I am feeling very ill and I guess I might die before her. I really hate it when someone I hate most in my family boast to me the places he had travelled. Which I had not been travelling overseas for 3 years. Never offer any help when I need to run errands or tired. Mess up the house and leave the mess for me to clear!!! He just feel that this is my job. So I should do my job well. Sigh...

about 1 month ago, said...

Feeling so very list. I'm so tired and in so much pain all the time since my 26 year old fell 30 feet from a roof. He's big n heavy n.I feel all kinds of sick..ALLLLL THE time. 5 mins before his accident I would never have believed that it would happen and that he would be paralyzed. Another spinal surgery comin up soon. I'm trying so hard to be strong n patient. I'm driving everyone away because I feel so lost n depressed. I'm trying so hard to hold on. ...ugh and humph.

about 1 month ago, said...

Thank you...Mom is with us and has been for a fe months. We have good days and bad.

about 1 month ago, said...

Sue it's ok. We all lose it now and then. It is impossible not to break down sometimes, and misunderstandings are so common with all of us. Is your Mom still with you? What I do, every night, I whisper to Dad, "ok Dad, just listen for a moment. You won't have to yell or anything. Just wanted to say here you are, best Dad in the world, in the most comfortable bed and the safest home of the neighborhood." Then I lean down and touch his chest with my arms and I say, "ok, hug back," and he will just touch or push my arm, and I say, "see that, Dad, now we can have good dreams." And I always feel better after that, no matter how combative the day has been. Lots of love and support to you, Sue. You are doing your best, you deserve credit, and you are perfect!

about 1 month ago, said...

I misunderstood my Mom (96) and yelled at her now I feel terrible.

about 1 month ago, said...

I'm with you, Zak. Couldn't agree more. I watch movies late into the night, the kind that I enjoy, no matter what others might do. Ah, if I only still smoked -- can still feel the inhale that I loved! But, no more for me. And of course I respect that folks have gotten very ill from smoking. BUT, I'm glad you are enjoying your caffeine, your ciggies and fresh air. Open the sashes, mate! :)

about 1 month ago, said...

L-i-s: There's a minute to breathe -- now. Lately I find myself waking up as early as 2 or 3 am and I make some really good coffee, throw open the windows, turn on some music and light a cigarette. These are the few moments I call on my own. This is when the world around me is sleeping and cannot steal them from me. I experience some remotest form of freedom, a trace of which I was used to. Even then I find myself immersed in complex, conflicting emotions. Am I being very selfish? Do I or don't I love mum? On the flip side, maybe I should not be thinking at all and live one day at a time. I can pretty much imagine what you're going through, and I can write up some fantastic advice. But I wouldn't. I have heard many 'inspiring words', talked about spirituality and philosophies, but however much I try to change my own attitudes, deep within I know what I want and it's next to impossible to lie to myself. These are the moments when my my wanders to some extremes, and I wonder "Doesn't James Bond have a mum to take care of? Or a sick child?"

about 1 month ago, said...

I appreciate you for reading. I feel your pain. I'm so hurt for everyone. Who is going thru what we go thru. Specially those who need our care. I pray you have little break when you get a chance. Keep in touch ? When there's a min to breathe.

about 1 month ago, said...

Zak. I also feel your pain. Besides my last post. I would like to know. . Why are all the things I do never good enuf? And why when I'm in constant pain , is MY PAIN MINIMIZED BY MY SON? WHY AM I MADE. ..EVERYDAY MADE TO FEEL INADEQUATE. I HAVE MY OWN BONE ISSUES AND MY SON IS VERY HEAVY. I , LIKE YOU , HAVE NO MOTIVATION , NO INTEREST IN MUCH ANYMORE. I HAVE NO DESIRE TO EAT. NOTHING APPEALS TO MY PALATE ANYMORE. I KNOW I NEED TO EAT MORE THAN A SNACK EVERYDAY BUT MY STOMACH IS UPSET ALLLLL THE TIME. AND WITH ALL THE CARE I GIVE if I sit. Or stand , to put a piece of food in my mouth that's it. I get so exhausted that I am hit and am unable to go on with my duties. He, being so mean , when I am doing everyday doin everthing , is there no appreciation.? I can't keep up with everything.anymore. I'm averaging maybe 2 to 3 hours of sleep a night .. I'm doing this alone . I'm just feeling so dejected. And what I don't get is why does he feel so entitled to Everything? ! I'm trying to take care of everything by myself and I feel all the emotional and physical and pain and deep in my soul. I'm,tired of his selfishNess and self absortion.. I'm.breaking down. praying for you .

about 1 month ago, said...

Lost in space -- I read all your posts. Not sure if this will help, but I definitely understand your feelings. Someone else saying "Oh, take it easy blah blah" only makes it all more bitter. My sister calls once a week from Canada, and goes "how're you're doing, mom" and "Zak, take care of yourself" and stuff. This doesn't help in any way. My heart goes out to you -- I do understand the suffocation, because I feel it myself. I'm sure you love your son and husband just like I love my mom, but my question is "What about me? I live only once, don't I?" I see hundreds of people around, who seem to going on with their life without a care (They may have some other problem, but that's beside the point.) I ask myself, "These guys, don't have a sick mom? A sick child?" ..... So many feelings come rushing at me. I remember reading a quiz somewhere, "What would a slave prefer? Eternal love or freedom?" The correct answer was "Freedom". Of course!! Without freedom, you can't love anyone. I'm missing the only one thing I lived by for so long -- my freedom to do what I want to do and how to do it when I want to do it. I heard just today that an ex-colleague is leaving for Stockholm to attend a Volvo research demonstration. That would have been me ... this may sound silly, but my point is I just can't do what I want to do. I'm not even interested in eating out, the movies, nothing ... I am not me, so how I can enjoy anything.

about 1 month ago, said...

I haven't done any traveling out of the country. Lots across the U.S. Now. I related to you situation. My son . 26. Was paralyzed in a 30 foot fall. All the bones broken in his face. , traumatic brain injury. I feel like I'll stuck. I am stuck. No more than he is. .just in a different way. Now my husband comes down with heart disease. I'm in my room by myself ryt now. For a min. Trying to catch my breath. I never stop. This is my destiny. But , I, like you.. want my identity back. I'm not Anne anymore. I'm Alex n Ginos mom. And Rocky's wife. Every appt I take Alex to a dr they always call me by my maiden name. Because my husband hasn't been proactive in any way since our sons accident. And I get to take care of him too. When he wasn't there for me when my son was dying . How much more can we all take?!