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.

15 days 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!!

15 days 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 ...

17 days 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.

19 days 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

19 days 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.

25 days ago, said...

To the commenter with the alcholic husband- Can you get respite care through your dept of human services? There are resources out there if you check into them. Your county should have programs that can help you care for your husband. Here in iowa we have in home health care where a nurse or aide comes into the home and helps with needs like lifting and bathing etc. It's something to check into anyway.

25 days ago, said...

My husband just 7 weeks ago had a total hip replacement, he's an alcoholic , he's been told he has to have the other hip done soon. I work full time 10 to 12 hrs a day and take care of him, I didn't know all the care that was involved, feeling overwhelmed, I have no help, and he went through alcoholic withdrawals and nicotine withdrawal he choose not to go through rehab, but volunteered me to be his full-time caregiver , he didn't tell the doctor he was an. Alcoholic . We've had some fights, trying not to loose it. Anyone have advice?

about 1 month ago, said...

Thank you Zak for always reading my posts. I haven't been on in awhile. I appreciate your time and caring and your input. I pray that we can all find our way back... I want my identity back. No just someone's wife, mother, sister , aunt, friend...I want me back. I'm afraid I'll NEVER find her again.

about 1 month ago, said...

Thank you fellow commentator. Every word of support and encouragement means so ooooooh much... and I agree. I am a Christian woman. I have to say that I've questioned and been made at God and I had to come to the realization that if it weren't for Him, my Son wouldn't be here. But he IS.AND EVERYDAY I THANK HIM GRACIOUSLY FOR CARRYING ME THRU. BUT EVERYDAY SEEMS LIKE A YEAR.

about 1 month ago, said...

Thank you RhOnda W. I'm very new to caregiving. Last November my Son fell 30 feet off a roof and is paralyzed from the nips down. broke all the bones in his face among other things. He also had a traumatic brain injury. I so admire you for sticking by your husband. You are a True angel. I'm 47 and it's been just over a year. My son just turned 27. On Dec.17. It seems to get harder everyday as opposed to easier. My husband is totally non proactive and I'm so tired all the time. Sometimes I feel like I'm gonna drop and never get up again. Stare at a wall and never speak again.

about 1 month ago, said...

thanks for appreciating my comment. I just want people to know there are others that have been where they are now. And you can move forward one day at a time. I still struggle with alot but it is just the way our life is. Such is life is my favorite phrase. You do the best you can and you pick yourself up and keep moving. What else can you do? LIfe goes on.

about 1 month ago, said...

Such an encouraging comment from Rhonda W Thank you wonderful person.

about 1 month ago, said...

I'm new here but I am an old hand at the care giving game. My husband flipped a fork lift and landed on his head on concrete and a wooden skid. He has a brain injury. This happened in April 1977. We have been dealing with this for 40 yrs. There were years where he improved and then got worse. I know all about the feelings and the ups and downs of feeling all alone. I have gone through a lot of what ifs,. I wish I could trade places with him and give him back his normal life. but I can't do that. I have to deal with him in all of his problems. I chose not to leave him when he was injured. I was encouraged to walk away but I didn't get married to leave at the first bad thing that happened. We will celebrate 42 yrs next Jan. I have been through some pretty tough years. but we have learned to take it one day or one moment at a time and we get through it all. I truly know how tough it is for you to deal with your situations. My husband has a head injury that mimics stroke symptoms and alzheimers symptoms and he has paranoia and PTSD from Viet Nam. I get really low and think how can I do this for another 40 yrs? I have worked hard to give him back as much dignity as I can. He can't read he can't work he can't concentrate on much for very long. We fought his depression and mine for years. we are both in a better place now. Please if you get nothing else from what I post is that there is hope!! You can get through the bad moments. You aren't alone. I am so very sorry for the pain you are going through. I firmly believe that how we deal with what our life brings us helps others around us. We may not know how we have affected others but they are watching and they know you and your loved ones are doing the best you can.