Surviving Caregiving

Who's Most Likely to Feel Caregiver Stress?

Last updated:

February 07, 2014
stressed_caregiver

Every caregiver I've ever talked to reports some degree of stress. And why not? The compound challenges of worry, crunched time, losses, and all the rest can take a toll on even the most cheerful, resourceful, and healthy person.

But does caregiving actually cause stress? Some surprising new research says no, the real source of the stress lies within the person, not the situation.

After looking at more than 1,200 female caregiving twins, Peter Vitaliano, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Washington, concluded that how stressful caregiving is for you psychologically is more a matter of your genes and your upbringing. Caregiving itself does not cause stress, he says. This new study appears in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Who's most at risk, according to this research? People who:

  • Have a history of depression. "Like putting salt in a wound," says Vitaliano.
  • Grew up with parents who showed a lot of avoidance and fear in response to big stressors (like losing a job).
  • Lack resources to help them cope, like social support and finances.

The study also found that caregiving can cause anxiety, which is in turn linked to depression.

This all may sound like splitting hairs. Though this research confirms Vitaliano's earlier work debunking a causal connection between caregiving and stress, it flies a bit in the face of many, many other studies that link them. There's even a name for it: caregiver stress syndrome.

This study didn't specifically look at Alzheimer's caregiving, whose duration and unique challenges can wear down even the best-adjusted family member. I wonder, would the results look different?

Bottom line: It doesn't strike me as terribly helpful to be told your stress is the fault of your genes or your family history. If you're feeling it, you're feeling it. It's nobody's fault -- the real question is what to do about it.

File this info in the nice-to-know category. Then go hide in the bathroom for a little deep breathing, a few bites of dark chocolate, and a wish for some respite time to come your way this week.