A Caregiver’s Guide to Coping with Stress and Burnout
Date Published: September 26, 2023
Most caregivers are more concerned with the care they can provide than with their own health. Yet, caregivers of an older or disabled loved one tend to live with chronic stress and chronically low levels of self-care. These factors raise their risk for negative physical and emotional outcomes, reducing their ability to provide quality care for their loved one or even for themselves.
A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 4 baby boomers are caregivers and reported having more chronic disease, more disability, and lower self-rated health than non-caregivers. Poor health puts baby boomer caregivers at risk for needing care themselves. According to geriatric psychiatrist, Ken Robbins, “Caregivers tend to be a special personality type: big-hearted, sensitive, responsible, well-intentioned — people who are motivated by and take a deep satisfaction in doing right by their loved one.” Yet, they are usually over middle age themselves, now burdened with physical challenges that they feel obligated to ignore in favor of their loved one’s care.
Robbins urges caregivers to consider “making the connection between your well-being and your ability to continue providing care.” Continue reading for details on caregiver burnout, including how to tell if you’re at risk and some strategies you can use to recover from burnout and continue caring for your loved one by caring for yourself.
What Is Caregiver Burnout?
Caregiver burnout or caregiver fatigue refers to mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion developed as a result of 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 in Los Angeles. They may misunderstand burnout as nothing more than normal exhaustion.
However, caregiver burnout is not as easily resolved as normal tiredness. “Individuals who experience caregiver burnout tend to face an all-encompassing fatigue that impacts multiple areas of their lives,” Sush continues.
Importantly, caregiver burnout can happen to anyone who is providing care for another person, whether it’s hands-on care, occasional care, or long-distance care. According to Zina Paris, MSW, associate director of Clinical Services at Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, it can even happen at the managerial level. “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,” she says.
What Are The Signs of Caregiver Burnout?
Crucially, caregivers often become accustomed to the routine stresses of taking care of their loved one. They may not notice the warning signs of caregiver fatigue until it negatively impacts their health and their ability to provide care.
Note these common symptoms of caregiver burnout, even in yourself. If you notice them, the caregiver may be burning out faster than they realize it.
1. A Short Fuse
Losing your temper easily or feeling angry toward friends, family members, or even the person you’re caring for is one obvious sign of caregiver stress. You may find yourself frustrated at even minor challenges and obstacles.
2. Emotional Outbursts
If you’re caring for a loved one with a declining condition, it’s natural to grieve. Caregiving can stir up a range of complicated emotions. But if you feel increasingly emotional, fragile, and depressed, you may need to make a change. Even if you’re not clinically depressed, emotional outbursts, crying unexpectedly, and feelings of despair can be an unconscious result of being overwhelmed.
3. Sleep Problems
Caregiver burnout can cause sleep problems, such as trouble falling and staying asleep or feeling tired all the time. Caregiving may be physically tiring, especially full-time, but the emotional strain can prevent you from getting healthy sleep no matter how tired you feel.
In some cases, your loved one’s specific issues may directly cause your lack of sleep, such as nighttime wandering or waking. It can be a vicious cycle when being unable to sleep due to stress, anxiety, and depression leads only to more stress.
4. Significant Weight Change
Unexplained weight changes can be another warning sign of burnout. For some caregivers, stress or depression can result in weight loss when they forget to eat or neglect their own nutrition. Anxiety can lower appetite, so they may not even notice they’re skipping meals. For others, feeling stressed leads to weight gain from emotionally triggered eating, frequent snacking, or quick but unhealthy food choices.
If your weight has changed by more than five or ten pounds since you began caregiving, your body may be sending you a signal that you need help.
5. Physical Ailments
If you find yourself getting headaches or colds more often, feeling constant chronic back or neck aches, or developing high blood pressure, you could be experiencing negative effects from your caregiving. Mental and emotional stress can lower your immunity or cause physical disorders such as “stress headaches,” which are stronger and more persistent than normal.
If you don’t make time for self-care, the snowball of stress and sickness could continue growing out of control. Caregivers have a higher rate of chronic diseases than non-caregivers in part because of this cycle.
6. Social Isolation
If you find yourself going entire days without seeing anyone but your care recipient, dropping your usual social activities and becoming distant from your friends, you may be experiencing caregiver burnout in the form of social isolation. Getting out can be difficult if you’re responsible for providing care. Likely, your time is more limited, or your loved one’s behavior may make you embarrassed to go out in public.
But whether you intentionally or unknowingly isolate yourself, it can have negative effects on your health by contributing to stress, just as frequently socializing has been shown to reduce it.
How To Deal With Caregiver Burnout
While caregiver stress can lead to emotional instability or even chronic illnesses, there are strategies you can use to maintain your wellness while continuing to support your loved one. These strategies involve both physical and mental practices and can help you with your overall wellness.
1. Seek professional guidance and support groups
Many people choose to seek the help of a therapist or support group to manage their caregiver stress. “That provides a safe, sympathetic, and constructive environment where caregivers can express their wants and needs,” says Sush. Support groups for caregivers, even in specific care situations involving Alzheimer’s or other illnesses, may also be available in your area, though most caregivers find it difficult to get out of the house for support groups in their limited free time. Ask around at local hospitals, senior centers, places of worship, or your local Alzheimer’s Association.
2. Ask family and friends for help
While asking for help can be difficult, your good friends and family likely want you to be happy. If they can step in, not only will you have time to relax, but those filling in will also better understand you and your loved one’s situation. To avoid complications later, make sure your potential helpers know what will be required of them and can definitively commit to the days and times you need them. Make sure to express your gratitude to them too, or even compensate them with casual gestures like gift cards, their favorite coffee, or a nice meal.
3. Bring your employer into the loop
While you may be reluctant to get your workplace involved, you may be eligible for caregiving-related aid that can help you deal with burnout. This could include leave time, flex time, a free needs assessment, and more. As Gail Hunt, president of the National Alliance for Caregiving, notes, not all companies offer this kind of aid, but of the 18 percent of the workforce eligible for such programs, only 2 percent are using them.
4. Adopt a problem-solving approach
Your emotions are naturally entangled in the care of a loved one, but to provide the best care, consider a more analytical approach. Instead of stressing out about your loved one’s behavior, try to figure out practical solutions to it. This may involve additional research into their condition or training in a piece of medical equipment. By turning emotional situations into concrete problems that have solutions, you may feel less overwhelmed and more able to provide quality care.
5. Listen when your body talks
“Pain in your body is like a warning light in your car,” says Rackner. “You ignore the ‘E’ on the gas gauge at your own peril. Your body is no different.” Chances are that ignoring a new symptom isn’t going to help it go away. When you start to feel the effects of caregiver fatigue, take it as a sign that you need to give yourself a break. This may involve calling on friends and family for assistance or considering some form of formal respite care.
6. Connect with your loved one’s doctor
“Everyone is better served — including the caregiver — if the caregiver is included as part of the team,” Rackner says. Research shows that when doctors find ways to address the unique needs of individual caregivers, the stress load is reduced. Your loved one’s doctor may have some suggestions to reduce your fatigue that can benefit both you and your loved one.
7. Schedule Yourself In
Caregivers spend an inordinate amount of time with a loved ones’ doctors but seldom see their own. Make appointments for your regular exams, flu shots, dental visits, and anything else you need at the same time you arrange your loved one’s. Some practitioners allow simultaneous visits for pairs who share providers.
8. Find Healthy Emotional Outlets
Caregivers need at least one safe place to vent. Maybe this is a friend who agrees to listen without judging, a diary, a family member, or a counselor. Peer support from others in similar situations could provide an ideal outlet. Look for online forums devoted to creating safe places for online caregivers to vent, ask questions, and relate to each other.
How Long Does It Take To Recover From Caregiver Burnout?
Just as caregiver burnout has no single definition, recovery time will vary depending on the extent of the condition. Some caregivers can recover in a few days simply by rebooting their bodies, getting some sleep, drinking plenty of water, and destressing with friends and family.
Meanwhile, other caregivers can take years to recover. If the burnout has contributed to a chronic mental or physical illness, they may need a significant amount of time to return to normal. They may never be completely healed depending on how long they allowed themselves to burn out.
The important thing is for caregivers to realize that their health situation is a priority as well. Friends and family of the caregiver should try to understand that not everyone heals in the same amount of time. They may need to pitch in for the sake of the caregiver until they can take over again.
What Are The Differences Between Caregiver Stress and Caregiver Burnout?
Caregiver stress is a natural part of being a caregiver for a loved one. Caregiver stress is experienced in different degrees by different people, but it can include sleeping issues, being overwhelmed, and social isolation. Some level of caregiver stress is normal.
Caregiver burnout is when this stress progresses to become bodily and mentally harmful to the caregiver or has a negative influence on the quality of care they can offer. Caregiver burnout is associated with various mental and emotional issues including low self-esteem, anxiety, frustration, lack of concentration, depression, changes in personality, or physical conditions like headaches, pain, high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, or digestive problems.
Learning the main symptoms of caregiver stress is key to catching it before it becomes burnout, either in yourself or in your friend/family member who has become a caregiver.
Resources for Managing Caregiver Stress
The following resources may help you manage your caregiving responsibilities and stress. Below, you’ll find caregiver support groups and online forums, ample online resources, and service provider directories.
How It Helps
This nonprofit offers services for caregivers, including care planning, wellness programs, online resources, and more.
This tool helps caregivers find respite services in their local area to match their specific needs.
This is a community for caregivers, their families, and care-industry professionals to connect and share their experiences.
This is a space for women and men who are balancing the responsibility of caring for an aging parent with their home, career, and life.
The Family Caregiver Toolbox from CAN provides educational resources in 25 categories to help caregivers manage specific challenges, including caregiver depression, bereavement, stroke care, and more. Resources include articles, several video series, as well as service and provider directories.