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.

1 day ago, said...

I am so feeling what you're saying. My son was paralyzed in November. He fell 30 feet off the roof. I try so hard to be patient. Nothing I ever do is enough or I'm doing everything wrong. I've been up for 36 hours and he laughed at me and the me the he hoped it hurt. Because I have discovered disease. Why is it getting harder and not easier? I don't even want him here anymore. He's mean . Self absorbed n self centered. In March in every pain that I'm sure you can all understand. GOD.WHERE ARE YOU ?

3 days ago, said...

My husband is dying of ALS. Each week a new problem arises to be solved. I feel guilt because I wish he coukd just pass on and give us both a break. I know I will miss the "him" that was...but not this. I feel like my life is nothing but ALS...because it is! I'm angry, resentful and many times, impatient...even though I don't want to be.

6 days ago, said...

My heart n pain go out to everyone. All my props to every one who is going thru it

6 days ago, said...

I'm with you. How am I supposed to care for my 26 year old son after falling 30 feet and is paralyzed from the nips down. Angel two weeks ago my husband was rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed with heart disease.

13 days ago, said...

If that which does not kill you makes you stronger...WHERE do you find the strength or even will to survive?

13 days ago, said...

Is it just me or do are children seem engrossed with their needs only? I get angry because they don't want to get involved. They seemed to think that their mother is my problem not theirs sounds to me like I'm on the pity pot. I thankful that I have a personal friend who cares(Jesus)

15 days ago, said...

my husband was dignosed with stage 4 lung cancer a year and a half ago .im losing my house aug 17, I feel like a worthless piece of crap because it seems as though I am being controlled by my inlaws because I recently went through a bout wit child protection because my inlaws turned me in. I think the motive behind it was greed and jealousy. im not sure, I have never been accepted yet I live with my mother n law and the judge ( brother n law lives next door. even though it may not be true I live under a microscope, I want to relocate but have no money and my husband tells me what I want to here in regards to moving and behind the scenes gets what he wants because im too stupid and . my marriage has never been good and I long for that relationship he has detailed coversations with his family that im not included in and I live in the dark, he thinks we have a good relationship and he tells me everything but its not so. for example we went to the movies yesterday and this is the third time he just never sat with me, stayed gone, my whole life is like the movie situation. when he feels good enough to function im either burned out or he spends it away from me we go to the casino he gets lost and blames me . its just a sad situation and I miserable and stuck . and lonely

25 days ago, said...

My Alex has been sleeping for a few hours. I've been up and running for 19 hours. I know I should sleep when he does. But I would rather just sit here in silence as opposed to sleeping. So I know it's wrong but can anyone relate? I'd rather work for all those hours and sacrifice what sleep in may be allotted. And work all day n night n drain myself just for a bit of deep couch sitting and silence. Ugh and humph.

26 days ago, said...

I hurt so bad for everyone's hardships. Thought I was the only one going through this. Commenting on Alzheimers. That part of the brain't that causes swearing and inappropriate behavior is not the patients fault. I don't see by law how that can keep someone out of a facility. I'd check it out. That's a terribly debilitating disease and nothing should be considered as harrassment. Where's the empathy???

26 days ago, said...

Thank you for this. I'm having trouble with anger, for slights that are too often real, but also exaggerated. I know I am "overly sensitive," much as I also resent that catch-all description. And I get as much support in my recovery communities as I can. But I am often "trapped" for too many hours and days in succession, and expected to be the loyal family member who is expected beyond reason to give in rather than speak up. I have two parents to worry about, with the Alzheimer's situation being the less difficult than my other parent's wants (beyond reasonable and even somewhat luxurious needs). So, anger is too often my middle name. Now today, I've heard that a certain hospice organization may refuse service for a friend's family member, and it worries me about my own family. So, I have a question: Is a certified, notable hospice organization permitted to refuse service if an Alzheimer's patient uses language that contains sexual reference or reaches out to touch someone on the breast? I am not trying to be graphic, but I was appalled when my friend told me that the hospice care (by a quasi Catholic organization, though bonafide health care agency) for his mother was discontinued on this basis. My own parent uses language he wouldn't have used before the onset of the illness, and I can't imagine that, in this day and age, an actual hospice care facility would be ALLOWED to discontinue care because of Alzheimer's symptoms that we ALL have come to recognize! So, please add "confused" to my "anger" and "overly sensitive" problems, I guess. But I won't let it get the better of me, or my family.

27 days ago, said...

Hello! I can relate to the many things you are going through. I care for my grandmother and her life has changed significantly since her fall about 4 years ago. I feel I no longer have a life because of her 24 hour care. I moved my family to her home and things were ok until lately. I'm feeling the burnout and am struggling to sort out many emotions at this point. I want a sense of myself back and I only wish her adult children and adult grandchildren will lend a hand. Thank you for sharing your post and I know I am not alone going through the struggles of caring for an ailing adult.

27 days ago, said...

My son fell off a roof in November and is paralyzed from the nips down. Broke all the bones in his face among many other things. I have no life anymore and I am alone in this. My husband is not proactive at all. I have a 17 year old that helps a little but he is only 17. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. My son was also diagnosed with schizophrenia 5 years ago. How much more can I do. I feel like I'm dying.

about 1 month ago, said...

the information was great /understanging

about 1 month ago, said...

Get help. Go seek out respite care, look at companies. You deserve a break, they deserve you well-rested as possible in the circumstances,

about 1 month ago, said...

Oh my dear orphangirl.......just breathe sweetie....just breathe. I lost my Mom on April 22, 2015. My Mom and I had a fabulous relationship my whole life... .often very unconventional. She was always larger than life. I was honored to care for her. But it wasn't easy. She received hospice care for 2 yrs, but was always on the verge of being "too healthy" for their services. Slight dementia, panic attacks, COPD, early/mid stage Parkinsons. But you know....she reallywas doing pretty well. I would get so frustrated with her.....forgetting to put on her oxygen, walking around without her walker. Sleeping all day and reading sll night. In the middle of all of this I had to adopt my 2 grand daughters, ages 2 and 10 at the time. I would nap when the baby napped, Mom would feel I was avoiding her.....because after lunch was when she would wake up. Suddenly she started to act really strange, goofy.....then panic attacks that would last for hours, pacing, trying to leave the house.....all within a few days. She wasn't coherent. This lasted a week...I got almost no sleep...I had to knock her out with sleep meds to get her to rest at all. Hospice started to come every day. About 10 days in, the nurse realizes that my Mom has become septic from a kidney infection and her ammonia levels were toxic. They started her on strong antibiotics immediately. After about 3 days, she seemed to be coming around. She could rest comfortably, the panic was subsiding. She finally came out of it....very weak, but she was back. I held her hands and cried and told her how she had scared me. She told me "Don't be afraid, I will always love you" She went to sleep. I didn't put the bed guard up that night.....she was okay. The next morning I found her on her floor. She said she had been there all night. She told me her chest hurt. She said "I think I'm dying. " I called the hospice nurse to come and check on her immediately. She fell asleep.....and never woke up again. I sat,at her bedside for 7 more days and nights as her spirit fought to keep her body alive,,,,,and then that moment came. And it was over. And I couldn't breathe. I couldn't swallow. I should have taken her to the hospital when she started acting strange, when we thought it was sepsis, I should have called 911 when I found her on the floor. And now she was gone....realky gone....forever.... and it was my fault that this incredible, remarkable, amazing woman was dead. For months I could barely function, but I had 2 little girls and a loving husband to take care of. So I put one foot in front of the other. It is now over the 1 year mark....not that that means anything.....but I am doing better. It was a rough year. I cried a lot. I gained a bunch of weight. And I cried a lot. And I talked to my friends and family. And I cried a lot. I cried while writing this. But I breathe a lot more now. I know she would REALLY not want me to be less than who I am because of her death. So I can't tell you it will get, it won't. But you will find a way, a thought process, a gut cope every day, to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and just keep breathing.

about 1 month ago, said...

Hi orphangirl63, I understand and relate to some of what your write about--I'm currently caretaking my mother who's going on 96 in August, cared for my Dad until he died here at home in 2000, and feel the same emotions and will dread the day my mom doesn't wake up again or something else happens. But I hope you realized in some small corner of your thinking that you couldn't be able to keep her happy and healthy forever--and her time came. Yours, after the pain and shock, will grow stronger--and the orphan will become the adult growing into a mature woman ready and waiting to come to her own life and adventures that's also in another small corner of your thinking. I wish you all the best and hope you can find support to get through what you are feeling--