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.

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.

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.

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.

21 days ago, said...

I had to stop working to take care of my mom. I have no life, cant make any plans. Im sad and mad all the time. It affects my marriage etc. I love my mom but i am so unhappy right now. I hope i can find a way to help all the bad thoughts i have. Im anxious all the time, im having a hard time falling asleep. I wake up in the middle of the night with palpitations. Im tired.

about 1 month ago, said...

I hope I die soon. I hate caregiving for my mom, done it since I was child. My mom is disabled with CP and got worse, now needs more care. My dad left us when I was almost 18, I feel angry because I feel like my dad should be taking care of her. He was the one who married her. I never had a life/childhood because I was raised in a cult. I still can't have a life now and I will be 30 this year. I know if I'm feeling this bad, I should put her in a home. I would feel guilty because most people abandoned her. I sometimes wish she aborted me so I didn't have to live this life and feel this way. I was an accident anyway. Im so depressed and stressed. My personal hygiene is suffering bad, I eat mostly junk, I need medication to sleep. I have a lot of panic attacks. All my energy is going towards taking care of my mom. I have no one who can help. All I can do is hope I die soon, at least I wont have to feel guilty when she goes into a home.

about 1 month ago, said...

I have a sibling who fed on everyone's negativity about me living with my parents. They helped me when I needed it the most, so, in turn, I did the same for my parents. I had 4 siblings, 2 brothers, 2 sisters, aged 18-8 years older than I am. My mom had Alzheimer's, dad had diabetes. I also had 2 boys to worry about so I worked a full-time job at night and was a single mom, heading fundraising, team mom, coaching mom and watched my boys go to state every year. I succeeded at my job, fixing inventories, cash rooms and grocery departments at work. I slept 2-4 hours a day, IF I was lucky. Now, because I didn't take care if me, I ended up with stage 4 breast cancer at age 45, 3 years after my parents died. When I told my siblings I had breast cancer, I was told I was lying to get attention. I don't have much to do with my siblings these days. I'm a 6 year survivor.

about 1 month ago, said...

this doesn't help the feelings at all. I recognize what I am feeling, and still feel immense resentment, pain, depression, hate, anxiety and anger. I am tired. I have not been able to live my life at all. First I took care of my father, now my mother. Do I sound selfish? Indeed I am sure I do. I just want my life back.

2 months ago, said...

I am experiencing grief and guilt in measures that are more than I can handle. My mom passed away after 10 years of my care, of an aortic dissection. She was 89, a diabetic, on blood thinners and she said no to surgery. But I'm not entirely sure she understood what was happening to her. When she lost consciousness after 3 days, I asked them to take all the tubes and wires out, because mom was clear that she didn't want to be on life support. She passed away peacefully. Now I'm wondering if I did the right thing. I've heard several stories of people who survive aortic dissection, and I feel guilty that maybe I should have talked my mom into the surgery, and not have her life support measures removed. I loved my mom very much, but there's this nagging thought in my head that I didn't fight hard enough for her life.

2 months ago, said...

I am obsessed with being sure my mom's needs are taken care of n a very short staffed nursing home. She suffered a terrible fall and is not longer mobile and is in wheelchair with an alarm sitt No across from nurse station all day. She is legally blind, helpless and cannot press a call button to be toilette. She is on Medicaid, and am paying extra help $2000 month additionally for extra care. This is killing me because I am obsessed with her care. How can I let go of this obsession?

3 months ago, said...

I hope you all will continue to talk to someone if not here so you can continue to deal with your situation. You are not alone!! Reaching out is the best mental heatlh move you can make. I never had anyone to uplift me when going through my husband's head injury and subsequent effects on our lives over 40 yrs. So please stay connected to someone to help you through the tough times. Rhonda

3 months ago, said...

I need a support group

3 months ago, said...

This is such an informative article. We agree that emotions can by deadly if not properly dealt with. It's great that you have not only brought to light difficult to deal with emotion - but you have also offered a solution on how best to deal with them.

4 months ago, said...

How are you doing now lost in space and Zack? I hope you are finding ways to cope. Depression is a very real problem when you are a care giver. I look back and can see how much I was depressed along the way. We didn't know then what we know now. We limped along dealing with my husband's problems with no help from anyone. Glen had his accident in 77 and other than some therapy on a knee he had no help. Most of his problems are mental. He as paranoid and still deals with that. We couldn't go to a restaurant unless we got there when they opened and noone was there yet. I couldn't stop at a gas station to get gas unless there were no cars on the lot. He thought everyone was laughing at him and making fun of him for being stupid. I could write a book on PTSD and paranoia and care giving. I just hope to help anyone I can. It is tough to be a care giver and I have wanted to walk away many times. I contemplated suicide at one point in my life tho not because of my husband but because I had a problem with money. But he has never been there for me as any kind of support. I am his support and I have no one really. My daughter is some support but I can't lay everything on her shoulders. she grew up being my sounding board. now she has a family and has her own problems. I so understand needing to be your own person and not just someone's support. Finding time for something that makes you feel good about you is so important!! I am a quilter and I have been for 35 yrs. It gives me something that is mine and I teach online. so I get positive feedback from that. You are not going to have happiness and joy handed to you. You have to make an effort to search out ways to make yourself feel good about you. I also read alot. It takes me out of my situation and I go where ever the book takes me for awhile. it is an escape anyone can do. Another thing that helps me is if I am really upset I sit down and write on my word processor. I get out all of my frustrations and say things that I would never say to that person in real life. I often just erase it later but sometimes I keep it and go back and reread it months later. I don't keep a diary too hard to do but I do like ot write. I also like to write poetry and that has been an outlet to release feelings also. Whatever your strengths are think about how you can give yourself a lift each day. If it's a bubble bath or a walk in the park or anything that makes you feel good about you then you will have combatted in some small way the depression and the cares that drag you down. Another issue I have had to deal with that I know many of you do too is wishing it was me and not my husband suffering. I so wish I could give him back all the dignity and the personal strengths he's lost. He had a hard time giving up his driving. He loved to drive for hours and it was his stress reliever. He was a mechanic and it took him years to get too a place to accept he can no longer do that. I have done everything I can to give him back some of his independence. There have been times when I thought he had died. Many times during a seizure he stops breathing. It is so scary. There is only so much I can do for him and I have had to accept this. He will live with his limitations for the rest of his life. We have come to a point where he is doing well now most of the time. He has seizures and large muscle spasms from time to time and other problems. But the meds he's on has him in a good place now. We live one moment at a time as I never know when and if he is going to be able to get up and do things. His body shuts him down and any given time. He loses the use of his arms hands or legs at a moments notice. so we have learned to accept and live with this a moment at a time. We don't make long range plans. We don't worry about what tomarrow brings. We live in the moment for the most part. I can plan to leave at 9am but if Glen has a bad episode as we are going out the door then all bets are off and we stay home. I hope my ramblings brings you some sense of being able to cope with your situation. I do understand very well. We have been through pretty much every thing you are going through. One last note. - the best thing we ever did was both of us are on antidepression meds. If I forget to take mine noone wants to be around me LOL I start taking peoples heads off LOL Wishing you all sunshine and laughter and warm thoughts!!

4 months ago, said...

Thank you Fiona, Rhonda, LIS for writing in. I'm safe, don't worry drastic moves. I remember my professor at San Jose State telling me: "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." Sometimes I need to write furiously or dramatically to get rid of the poison in my mind. Makes sense? Thank God for this Forum where I can write my mind out, which, I hope, most will understand. Meanwhile, the staus-quo with my mom is still the same -- but not once in the last 3 years have I expressed any anger at her. She has no idea what's going on within me. I still hug her, I sit with her watching some TV, feed her with a smile and wheelchair her to the bathroom,,,, a nurse comes in to take care of her till next morning. She's actually looking better lately. I'm happy with that, but my pain is so strange, so abstract, changing colours from inside- to outside-anger to depression to loneliness. I just don't have my freedom, is that too much to ask? Don't I live only once? As you said, I will explore any self-help groups out here in Bangalore, India. There are no government programmes ...

4 months ago, said...

Zak, please seek care from a doctor, licensed medical professional, or a crisis hotline to get connected with someone who can help you right away. If you're in the US, call 1-800-784-2433.

4 months ago, said...

Zak do you not have any friends or family that would help out? I don't know what country you are in but here in the USA we have government programs that can help also. What about your doctor? Does the dr not have any suggestions to help you? I'm really sorry you are in this position. You need somebody to give you a break. that would at least help. Have you researched all the possible ways your government can help? Is it possible to hire someone to come and help your mom? I know the stress you are under. I hope you find some help to keep you going. Rhonda

4 months ago, said...

This will be harsh -- so if you can't take the rough, please stop reading. See, sometimes it's possible to see the end of the road, however foggy or distant. The only way this relationship with my 82-year-old mom can end is by death. I mean natural death, of course. Waiting for death implies that Either she or I must die..... there's no other ending to this, because I don't have facilities to put her in a care home. Such facilities do not exist in my country. Sorry, this is so blunt, but I am aging, at 60 and I can't wait forever for her to die. I love her a lot, I'm taking care of her like a baby last nearly three years. But don't you think I have a life? I live only once, don't I? I'm so used to living/freedom last 42 years of my life. ... is that a wrong thing? Even she's tired, sometimes she says so. And her dementia is creating extra problems, she doesn't believe me, etc.... her physical health/vitals are excellent. So I think I don't want to get old living under such circumstances. So why not I just create my own death, setting up enough funds and a trust to take care of her? I'm rich. Disclaimer: These are just my thoughts about how to resolve this issue, not that I'd necessarily commit suicide.