Caregiver Burnout: What it Means, and How to Cope

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Caregiving can bring many positives into your life -- but it can also take a toll, both physically and emotionally. Without finding a balance between caring for your loved one and maintaining your own mental, physical and emotional health, you’re at risk of developing what's known as caregiver burnout.

“Feeling exhausted, unmotivated, constantly frustrated, and forgetful as well as having problems at work or with relationships are all signs of caregiver burnout,” says Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, a New York-based therapist specializing in anxiety and depression.

Caregiver burnout can interfere not only with your ability to care for your loved one, it’s a leading contributor to placement in a nursing home. It’s also hazardous for your own health, raising the risk of chronic depression, hypertension, diabetes, stroke and premature death.

“It is important to have life balance between caring for loved ones and caring for yourself,” says Hershenson. It helps to know the signs that you need a break, and what to do if you’re close to depleting your emotional, mental and physical reserves.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

Spotting the signs of caregiver burnout

Caregiver burnout is mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that may develop through the responsibilities of supporting and caring for another individual. “Caregivers often focus so intently on the needs of the individual receiving care that they may neglect their own health and wellness,” says Darren Sush, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst in Los Angeles.

As this lack of self-care persists, along with the ongoing obligations of providing care for a loved one, caregivers’ exhaustion often intensifies, impacting different aspects of their lives, as well as their effectiveness and compassion as a caregiver.

Sush says that burnout can be easily misunderstood as simply feeling overly tired, or even occasionally exhausted. “Unfortunately, while being tired can often be resolved by taking a break, getting a little more sleep, or actively trying to relax, burnout is more often less easily relieved. Individuals who experience caregiver burnout, tend to face an all encompassing fatigue that impacts multiple areas of their lives,” he says.

Caregiver burnout can happen to anyone who is providing care for another person, whether it’s daily, hands-on care or is only occasional, from a distance, or even at the “managerial” level, says Zina Paris, MSW, associate director of clinical services at Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles, a non-profit helping families affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. “It happens when you feel that the experience of caregiving is overwhelming and that you do not have the support – physically, mentally, emotionally, financially – that you need in order to successfully care for the person and to take care of yourself adequately at the same time,” says Paris.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

Very often, caregivers can find themselves accustomed to the routine stress, worry and discomfort that comes with providing care for a loved one. And as a result, Sush says you may not acknowledge the warning signs of your own need for support.

Those signs include:

  • You no longer find pleasure in things you once found enjoyable, or you have no motivation to participate in previously enjoyed activities
  • Friends and family have expressed concerns about your well-being
  • You’re getting negative feedback at work
  • You're having problems with your spouse
  • You experience intense and recurrent feelings of anger, sadness, worry or fear
  • You have difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, notice drastic weight changes (significant gain or loss), or unexplained health problems
  • You find yourself using a substance to cope with, manage or suppress uncomfortable or painful feelings

Sush notes that there are also signals caregivers should know that indicate they’re at risk for developing caregiver burnout in the near future. These include:

  • Regular thoughts of anger or resentment toward the person you’re caring for
  • Irritation toward others who aren’t helping with your loved one’s care (both those directly related to the person receiving care, and those who aren’t involved)
  • Isolating yourself from people who aren’t involved in providing care to the person
  • Consistently arriving late to appointments or to visiting the person receiving care, or often leaving early

Think you're at risk for caregiver burnout? Take the quiz to find out.

Combatting burnout

If you notice these signs in your own life, it’s time to take action.

Enlisting the help of a therapist is one option. “That provides a safe, sympathetic, and constructive environment where caregivers can express their wants and needs,” says Sush.

Having a supportive community also helps. “Making a connection, such as with friends, family, or support groups, where you can freely share your thoughts and feelings can be exceptionally important,” he adds. “While there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to get the help you need, it is important to acknowledge when you do need help.”

Here are some other expert strategies to help you cope with caregiver burnout:

Embrace gratitude. Make a daily gratitude list by writing down 10 things you’re grateful for. This could include anything from your family, legs to walk on or even a TV show you find entertaining. Focusing on what is good in your life as opposed to what is "going wrong with your loved one's health" helps relieve stress.

Read affirmations every morning. “Starting your day with positivity kickstarts your day on the right foot,” says Hershenson.

Start the day with you. Hershenson says having a morning routine with time to yourself (going to the gym, having your daily coffee while reading the newspaper or stretching for 10 minutes) is crucial to fending off mental stress and fatigue.

Practice acceptance. Make a list of what you can control in the situation (getting enough sleep, eating well) and what you can't control (your loved one's health). Focus on what you can control to make changes where needed and try to accept the things that are out of your control.

Paris notes that while the advice to "take a break" may sound cliché, it is repeated for a reason. “Self-care needs to be a top priority when caring for another person, otherwise neither the caregiver or the one receiving care will thrive,” she says. “This means finding a way to take short respite from caregiving on a consistent basis.”

Respite care resources

Gina Roberts-Grey

Gina Roberts-Grey is an award-winning writer whose health features have appeared in numerous publications including Glamour, Woman's Day, Family Circle, ESSENCE and websites such as Lifescript, MSN and NextAvenue. See full bio