The 7 Deadly Emotions of Caregiving: How to Cope

caregiver guilt

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 caregiver 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.

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 caregiver 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.

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.

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][2].

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.


Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio


about 1 month ago, said...

Well people... I used to write about about taking care of my mom, and not being able to travel, not having the freedom to do what I want. It's never really as simple as that -- my mom passed away in March. I took care of her my entire life, but now that she's gone, do I enjoy my "freedom"? Not really. I'm actually abusing the so-called freedom and gotten into drinking. Now there's no one to question me why I came home late ... or not at all. I have no one to chat with in the late evenings .. mom used to give even a feeble smile at my jokes trying to please her. I miss that and have taken to drinking to cope with my loneliness ... coming not out of necessarily missing her, but just being alone. From what I see, care-taking can get quite complex -- you can't live WITH them, you can't live WITHOUT them..


about 1 month ago, said...

Ahhh Lost in Space please don't give up the site. I know you are dealing with a very depressing situation. I wish I could give you something that would help get your husband to be there for you. At the very least you can vent here and get some release from frustration for a few mins. You need friends to keep you on an even keel. No we can't fix your situation but we are there for you any way. I am keeping you in prayer and I hope things do get better. Can you get your husband to talk to anyone? at a guess I'd suppose he acts out because it frustrates him and being mean is powerful when someone feels powerless or just refuses to deal with the stress any other way. Please hang in there and let us know how you are doing


about 1 month ago, said...

Hi Lost in Space - I am not sure why you feel this site is useless. It's been extremely useful during my caregiving journey.


about 1 month ago, said...

This site is useless.


2 months ago, said...

Hes just SOOI MEAN N ITS BREAKING MY HEART.


2 months ago, said...

God help me. I can handle the medical end..since my Son was paralyzed almost 2 yrs ago..He had been diagnosed with Schizoprenia 3 years before his accident..He aldo sustained a traumatic brain injury..and all the bones in his face were broken. He fell 30 feet off of a roof. So on top of this seemingly unmanagable mental disorder..he gets a tbi. Hes so cognizant..when THEY..counted him out. But the schizoprenia is getting worse. Yes hes had med tweeks..weve tried several different meds. Hes getting worse. I dont wanna put him away. I dont know whst to do!!!! Again..the medical care..no problem..This horrible mental disorder is tearing my family apart.


3 months ago, said...

I'll add emotion trap #8: Doom Caregivers are encouraged to get right back up off the mat, do their best, be good people, seek a little help when needed assuming that it's available. But, in the final analysis, you're on your own and it never ever ends. No amount of positive thinking will get around that fact.


3 months ago, said...

I GET U RHONDAW. UNDERPAID.. NO PAY..CERTANLY NOT APPRECIATED N UNDERRATED. I GET MONEY FOR TAKING CARE OF MY SON..BUT IT ALL GOES TO HIM ANYWAY. I DONT DO IT FOR THE PITTANCE..I DO IT SO IF/WHEN THIS SUIT GOES THRU..THE INSURANCE COMPANY HAS TO PAY THE STATE BACK. WHAT I WONDER..AS A 24/7 CAREGIVER IS.. DOES A FAMILY MEMBER GET LESS PAY THAN IF SOMEONE WAS COMING IN N DOIN WHAT WE DO..I HOPE SO..OTHERWISE HOW DO THEY MAKE ENDS MEET. ITS ALL TWISTED. BEST WISHES N GOD BLESS. WISH I COYLD HELP YOU. DID U EVER TRY A GO FUND ME PAGE..IF N WHEN TIMES GET TOUGH..WHICH IS ALWAYS. HUGS


3 months ago, said...

One of the issues that have come up in my search for programs and help for my handicapped husband has been financial payment to a caregiver. If the care giver is not the spouse they can be a paid care giver through government waivers. But if the spouse is the care giver then the gov will not pay them for doing all the work needed to keep that handicapped person in their home with decent care. I have searched all the info anyone has ever given me and have in the last 20 yrs not found anything that helps the care giver spouse. My mom can be my husband's care giver in our home and she gets paid through medicaid. It just doesn't seem fair that the spouse can't draw something for a full job of taking care of a documented disabled spouse. I don't get into politics but it seems like the rules need to change to help people survive a handicapped existence for the family. I am a care giver for my autistic grandson and I get paid for that to give my daughter a break so she can spend time doing things with her other children. My mom serves that role with my husband to give me a break . But if you are the care giver for your spouse and it is a 24/7 job then there should be some financial support. You can't go out and get a job because your spouse needs you there. There should be some compensation when the handicapped spouse is documented as needing 24/7 care. Thanks for letting me vent LOL It frustrates me when I try to do everything I can to give my husband as much independence as I can so he can regain some sense of dignity and the gov ties your hands in financial ways. NOT looking for a hand out just want some recognition of what we as caregivers give up to be their support system above and beyond being their spouse. We lived on just disability for several years and let me tell you it wasn't much money!


4 months ago, said...

LovelyMe38 I feel your pain. I am my husband's caregiver. He is not able to be supportive. I really don't have anyone to be my backup. I am the backup. Do you have anyone who can give you "time off"? a family member or a neighbor? It is important to take care of your own health both physical and mental. In Iowa my husband qualified for a waiver and it pays for someone to come in and stay with my husband for awhile. Maybe your state has something similar. I'd check it out. there are also Elder care centers sometimes where the elder person can be cared for for a few hours. We don't have that here but in some of the bigger cities this is a possibility. When I went to a quilt retreat a few yrs ago I paid one of my grandsons to come and stay with my husband while I was gone. Maybe this is something to think about. I hope you find ways to get some ME time for yourself. You deserve it and need it to stay sane. God Bless! Rhonda


4 months ago, said...

You're welcome Lost in Space. I hope things get easier for you! It takes a lot of time to get through the rough spots. I've thought many times can I really live the next 30 yrs like this?? My DH is handicapped with a brain injury for those who don't know. It is possible to get through anything if you just think this one moment I am going to get through this and the next moment and the next. Take it one step at a time one day at a time one moment at a time and you can do anything. God loves you and cares about you.


4 months ago, said...

Thank u RhondaW


4 months ago, said...

LovelyMe38. I meant..CAREGIVERS..GOT A BIT MANIC THERE. GOD BLESS. PRAYERS YOUR WAY.


4 months ago, said...

LovelyMe38. I get you. Your deal is diff than mine.mine is my son..yours is HIS Mother. Nonetheless..We ARE XATEGIVETS..NOT IF OUR OWN CHOICE..WITH HUSBANDS..WHO ARENT PROACTIVE!! THEY ARENT "STUCK". ARE THEY? NO OFFENSE TO ANYONE..BUT I GETCHA. STUUUUCK!!!


4 months ago, said...

Been sittin in a motel room for two days..makin "Dad" be any kinda proactive. Schizoprenia rears its UGLY . EVIL HEAD..AGAIN. I CAN HANDLE THE PARALYSIS,ETC. ALL THE PHYSICAL..I CANT EVEN BE AROUND THE MENTAL ANYMORE. IM DYIN HERE. WAITIN 4 A ROOM IN A UNIT..SOMEWHERE. HE CAN DO IT..THIS ONE TIME..AT LEAST.IM SICK. IM SORRY FOR BITCHIN. WE ALL HAVE A STORY. GOD BLESS N KEEP ALL YOU N ALL YOURS.


4 months ago, said...

I have been the main caregivef2for my mother in law for the past year. She has severe dementia. I am also only 3 classes away from my B. S. in Psychology. I am a online student. I am also a mother of 4 children and a pastor. I have started becoming very depressed and overwhelmed as her caretaker because my life has become so isolated. My husband has been wotking 2 jobs and has bren in denial about his mothers illness for a long time. We moved her in with us about a yeat ago after she could no longer live by herself. I found mysekf having to do everything for her, such as make her bathe, cook her meals,wash her xlothes and make sure she get to her doctors. Basically, I do evrything for her. My husband is so checked out on reality most of the time and he doesnt even give me the time and attention that I need. I am bexomung very angry at him and feeling like why should I continue giving up my life to stay at home with his mother day in and day out with no feelung of appreciation. What do I do? There is so much more to this story!


5 months ago, said...

Ok I'm posting alot but I have one more thing I want to share. I am a care giver to my husband and also to my autistic grandson. I get paid for being his care giver. Zach is now 16 and was diagnosed at the age of 2 as being autistic. it is really unusual to get a diagnosis so early but my daughter worked with 2 yr olds in day care so she knew hwen things weren't right. Now Zach is 16 and we are working on getting him to learn social skills for self help. He is a great kid but I worry about not holding expectations for him that will make him reach for more. I also have worried about him growing taller and bigger than me(which he now is) as he used to throw himself on the floor in temper tantrums or lean over me and try to physically control me. He has come aways from those behaviors but I still have that on my mind at times. It's hard seeing your grandson not be able to do things and watch him be limited in his abilities. He is mostly stuck in kid cartoons and tv shows abut he has an almost photogenic memory. he knows all the minute details about his shows as in who the directors are who the sponsers are who appeared in which shows and which episodes etc. There is very little he doesnt' now about these shows. We have hopes he will not be stuck in TV land and will some day move behond this. but who knows. It is not the same as caring physically for a loved one but it is more of an emotional stress for me. I watch him and listen to him and think about what a "normal" 16 yr would be doing now. NO they would not be watching and mimicking little kid shows. but that is what his world exists of mostly rt now. He's very smart and has a quick mind. He is very loving and sensitive to other's emotions. He is funny and usually happy go lucky. It bothers me to feel he is missing out on so much. He will probably never get married. It's completely unlikely he will ever have children. But he is the love of our lives. and we take it one day at a time. I have him at least 2 weekends a month and in the summer he stays a week or more several times. I do wonder what his adult life will be like and I hope he continues to mature. We worry about him and it is stressful to meet his needs emotionally and any other ways he needs us. Thanks for listening.