Recovering from Caregiver Stress and Burnout

August 29, 2018
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Providing care to someone often means committing most of your physical and emotional energy to them. As a result, you may end up neglecting your own needs and exhausting yourself to the point of stress and burnout.

It’s understandable for you to tough it out for a person you care about and are fully committed to. However, overworking yourself not only damages your own wellbeing, but also prevents you from delivering effective care to the person.

Therefore, it’s important to know how to regain your physical and mental strength if you feel stressed or burnt out as a caregiver. You need to also learn how to prevent reaching your threshold in the future. This will enable you to maintain a healthy life while you fulfil your role as a caregiver.


What is Caregiver Stress and Burnout?

Caregiver stress and burnout refers to when you overstretch your physical and emotional limits when delivering care to someone, whether it’s a friend or family member. The point to which a person must stretch themselves before they reach this level of fatigue varies depending on the individual.

woman suffering from stress as a caregiver

Providing care is often so incredibly taxing because caregivers commit endless time and energy and receive little or no help from others. They usually have few to no days off, and even fewer hours to rest and recuperate in between delivering care. Someone needing care may require you to be available around the clock and, because you are accustomed to their routine and needs, it can be hard for someone else to fill in.

The problem with this is that human beings are only capable of dealing with so much emotional and physical strain. Overextending past these limits can easily cause both short-term and long-term harm to you, and even those around you.

You may be experiencing caregiver burnout if these symptoms apply to you:

  • Physical and emotional fatigue.
  • Feeling hopeless, isolated, and/or trapped.
  • Irritability, tearfulness, or emotional numbness.
  • Anxiety and/or depression.
  • Increased sicknesses, such as colds.
  • Losing your empathy for the person you’re caring for and/or feeling resentful towards them.
  • Feeling impatient and argumentative, either with the person you’re caring for or people around you.
  • Withdrawing from, or losing interest in, activities and hobbies you once enjoyed.
  • Physical symptoms, such as increased headaches, ulcers, and stomach aches.
  • Feeling like your life revolves around your caregiving duties.
  • Withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Waking up and dreading the day ahead of you.
  • You don’t want to ask family or friends for help as you fear being a burden.
  • Unhealthy coping behaviours, such as eating junk food, smoking, and drinking.
  • Feeling like you want to hurt yourself and/or the person you’re caring for.
  • Disrupted sleep and/or reliance on sleep medication.
  • Changes in your appetite, such as skipping meals or eating more than usual.
  • Losing or gaining weight.

You may not experience all of these, but if you’re facing a number of them it’s likely that you’re burnt out.


What Causes Caregiver Stress and Burnout?

Although the specific factors vary depending on your circumstances, caregiver stress and burnout often occurs when you overextend yourself and don’t receive enough or any support. Living a healthy, balanced life requires fulfilling a lot of responsibilities that your caregiver role likely leaves no room for.

elderly father and son carer

Furthermore, you may find it difficult to effectively juggle caregiving and your own life because you lack the training or facilities needed to effectively provide care.

Common factors that lead to caregiver stress and burnout include:

  • Unrealistic demands. These are often self-imposed, as you may constantly sacrifice relaxation and recuperation time to care for the person. It’s easy to feel like it’s a fair trade, as you think they need the time more than you do. However, resting and making time for yourself is equally important. If you’re not a trained carer, it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to endlessly fill such a demanding role.
  • Role confusion. When you adopt the role of caregiver, it can often leave you feeling confused and distressed, because your relationship with the person is now different – whether they’re a friend, parent, spouse, or child. This is especially true of caregivers who look after their parents. It can be hard to experience that role reversal and see the parent so vulnerable.
  • Financial pressures. You may have increased costs fulfilling caregiver duties or caregiving may have impacted your work. Financial stress can leave you feeling worried about your day to day life and unprepared for the future.
  • Anxiety and fear. Worries about money, the health of the person you’re caring for, and what the future holds can cause significant feelings of anxiety and fear. As your life revolves around helping someone who’s unwell, you’re also likely to focus on negatives more than positives. This, in turn, affects your mindset and outlook on life.
  • Lack of control. Dedicating your time and energy to caregiving can quickly change from feeling fulfilling to feeling like you have no control over your life anymore. You might feel like you need to always be available, meaning anything else in your life comes second. It may also be that the person has a degenerative condition, such as Alzheimer’s. This can leave you feeling helpless, particularly if your care doesn’t have the positive effects that you wish it would.
  • Guilt. Feelings of guilt can stem from the fact that you now have to neglect other responsibilities or aspects of your life, such as work, friends, family, children, and hobbies. You may also feel guilty if you think you’re not providing good enough care or are letting them down by feeling exhausted, even if you’re doing everything you possibly can. It’s also not uncommon for burnt out caregivers to think about no longer wanting to look after the person or to resent them for ‘becoming a burden’, and to feel guilty about ever having these thoughts.
  • Social isolation. As your caregiver duties take up your time and energy, you likely find it hard to see friends and family. You may also feel less enjoyment when going out, or not go at all, because you feel guilty ‘abandoning’ the person in your care. This may cause you to struggle to maintain social relationships and to feel disconnected from the world.

It’s usually a combination of these factors that throw your life off balance and wear you down physically and mentally. Whatever the cause, it’s crucial to know how to get back on your feet and regain your wellbeing – for the sake of yourself and the person you’re caring for.


Recovering from Caregiver Burnout

The first and most important step for recovering from burnout is to accept that you have limitations. Accepting this is difficult, as it can make you feel like you’ve failed, but that simply isn’t true. While admirable, it’s far more damaging to believe you have the strength to endlessly push your limits. True strength comes from knowing that you’re not perfect.

You must repeat to yourself that you have your own needs and attending to them does not mean you’re selfish. It means you are committed to fulfilling the role of caregiver in a healthy way: one that will work long-term. You’re investing in your own health and in turn the wellbeing of the person you’re caring for.

By accepting this, you can take the following steps to overcome and prevent burnout in future:


Talk to someone

Whether it’s a family member, friend, caregiver support group, therapist, or counsellor, someone is always willing to listen and empathise. Sharing your feelings and thoughts can significantly help you depressurise and feel like someone else understands. This, in turn, reduces feelings of isolation.

It may also help those close to you recognise that you need help, as you may have resisted in the past. Professional counsellors can help you manage your emotions and thoughts, and even suggest support avenues that you haven’t thought of.


Find support

You don’t have to do this alone. No one is a miracle worker; you need the support of others to handle something as demanding as caregiving. Ask people you know for help, even if it’s just an evening of staying with the person so you can unwind. Those who truly care about you will be happy to do so.

friends seeking support

You should also look for professional support, such as respite care. There are so many support avenues when it comes to finding respite care, including through your local authority. They can arrange for a care worker to come help or take over for a day, so you can have time off without feeling worried about the person in your care.


Set realistic goals

Accept that you can’t do everything. Rather than having a goal of doing everything, set realistic ones that are measurable and doable. For example, determine how many hours you can keep them company before you must fulfil other duties. This can also help you acknowledge just how much you’ve done and regain that sense of fulfilment.


Delegate

Do you have any small tasks and errands that others, such as your children, spouse, family members, or friends, can help with? For example, doing the laundry, washing up, or shopping. The time you spend doing these adds up over time. If you have help, you can reclaim it for yourself and attend to your own needs.

Be prepared for people who will try make you feel guilty or selfish though. You may hear hurtful things along the lines of “you used to be so caring”. Ignore these sorts of comments, because if they can’t see that you do care, that’s on them, not you. Your dedication to providing the best care possible is exactly why you need to look after yourself too.


Take care of and value yourself

It’s important to look after yourself both physically and emotionally to avoid burning out. Be kind to yourself – make your favourite meal, go to your favourite shop, spend some time exercising, go out with friends, or read a book. Do whatever it takes to reconnect with yourself, and don’t let guilt hold you back. Remember that you’re doing it for the person you’re caring for as much as you are yourself.

woman drinking tea and reading book


Learn more about their condition

You may feel more capable and in control if you better understand who you’re caring for. Set aside some time to read information online or in books or arrange to have a chat with your GP. It’ll help you recognise what you can and can’t do, which minimises frustration and self-doubt. Remember: knowing your limits is an important part of looking after yourself.


Accept your feelings

In the role of caregiver, you’re going to face hard, difficult days that get you down. Just know that it’s okay to feel frustrated, angry, tearful, or whatever else might be causing turmoil inside you. Acknowledge these feelings, let them out (such as by talking to someone), and move on. Write them down so they’re out of your head and come back to them later. This can help you feel in greater control of your emotions and make them feel much less daunting.


Above all, be at peace with everything you feel and the role you’ve chosen to fulfil – you’ll realise how freeing it is. When you put these steps into practice, you’ll start to regain your sense of self and satisfaction in life and provide better care than ever.


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