Caregiving for older adults can be a very rewarding experience. But the fact is, caring for others with diseases such as Alzheimer’s takes a toll on your health and well-being. It is a full-time job. The energy you normally spend on yourself is being redirected to a loved one or care patient. The stress of caregiving weakens your immune system. Your brain is in a fog. You are rushing from medical appointments to then spending countless hours by their bedside. The more duties you take on, the more your own mental and physical health begin to deteriorate. Caregivers are highly susceptible to health issues such as anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and chronic digestive problems. We want to ensure that you avoid ending up in a hospital bed. Therefore it is imperative that you be aware of the negative effects caregiving may be having on you, and self-care tips to prevent them.
Caregiver burnout happens when you are overwhelmed by chronic stress. You may have taken on more caregiving responsibilities than you can handle, or simply don’t have the help you need. You are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted with the feeling of having little to no control. When exposed to the stress of eldercare over a long time, stress hormones are released in the body at a high level. To manage this high stress, it is first helpful to recognize the symptoms early before they become much worse. Here are some warning signs and symptoms of caregiver stress and burnout:
Once you’ve noticed the effects of caregiver stress and burnout, you must identify what is causing the stress. Think deeply about where the real issue is. Sometimes the first thought that comes to mind is not always the right one. You might think something like “I’m tired all the time because I am doing this alone. No one wants to help me.” But perhaps the issue is deeper than that. Are you afraid to ask for help? Are you trying to do too much? Are you feeling inadequate? Are you finding that you cannot say no even though you want to?
After you’ve identified the issue and where it is coming from, ask yourself if it is something in your control to change. A lot of our suffering arises when we are fearing something happening that we cannot control. We are holding onto the idea that if we just put in a little more effort in, it will make a difference. However, your care receiver’s condition may be terminal. When we are unable to make the difference we want to, we get frustrated. The reality is that unfortunately there is nothing you or anyone else can do to change what will inevitably happen. You must accept things the way they are, and do what you can from there. Remember that you cannot control other people or situations. The only thing you can change is yourself and how you react to the situation.
If the problem is something that is in your control to change, make a list of possible solutions. Be open-minded to all possibilities and jot them down. Look at the problem from all angles and perspectives. Once your list is compiled, choose one solution and try it. Then evaluate if it helped solve the problem. If it didn’t, go on to the next possible solution. Keep trying until you have tried every solution on the list!
Another thing you can control is your ability to reduce your stress. There are easy things you can do that you have control over. For example, you could go for a walk or talk to a friend. But one of the most important things to help reduce stress and improve self-care is in your mindset.
You must identify harmful thought patterns that are getting in the way of your self-care. These thought patterns turn into limiting beliefs and misconceptions which end up causing you to overwork yourself. Thus, your health and the health of your care recipient suffer due to your misconceptions. If you change the way you see things, the things you see change. We will now outline some of the limiting beliefs that prevent you from taking care of yourself and why they may be erroneous:
Right alongside managing your stress and removing limiting beliefs, self-compassion is another essential brick in the foundation of self-care for caregivers. The main principle of self-compassion is to be kind to yourself. Give yourself credit. What you are doing is not easy on any level and you deserve some self-recognition. Identifying what you have done right helps prevent the ugly self-critic from rearing its ugly head. Here are a few other things you can do to practice self-compassion:
In the rush of taking care of someone else, we often jump from one task to the next with no time in between. We are disconnected from the present moment as we plan our days out in our heads. Our heart rate quickens and our breaths become shallow as we focus on the next task. We are tense and nervous. In this state, we are much more likely to make critical mistakes. It is imperative to slow your breathing down. When your breathing slows down, it sends a message to your brain to relax. Your thoughts will be less jumbled, and you can think clearer. Try this belly breathing exercise to help relax at any stressful moment:
Aside from practicing deep breathing relaxation, many other mind-body techniques combat stress. Meditation, mindful movement, and nature walks are among the most effective. Meditation helps you lower your blood pressure, stress, and risk of heart disease. It helps you bring a quality of mindfulness to your life. You will find yourself alert and aware of what is going on around you, and how it is affecting your thought patterns. Mindful movement such as Qigong and yoga also help cultivate more awareness. Among other benefits, Qigong can bring us out of the freeze, flight, or fight automatic responses by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Also incorporating sun, greenery, and fresh air is another easy way to reduce stress. Go on a nature walk. Research suggests that walking in nature can reduce depression. These important practices will energize you, making you less prone to stress buildup.
Take care of yourself physically. This means incorporating some kind of exercise into your day. It can mean something as simple as a walk to the store, rather than by car. Regular exercise will help maintain your stamina, balance, flexibility, and strength. These are all helpful abilities when caring for another, not to mention you just feel better. Another way to keep yourself fit is by eating healthy. Try to eat a well-balanced diet as best as you can. Because being chronically stressed leads to inflammation in the body, it is important to avoid foods that cause more inflammation. These include processed foods, refined sugars, and alcohol. It is also helpful to reduce caffeine if possible, as it raises cortisol levels. Caffeine and alcohol consumption also affect your sleep patterns. Sleep deprivation will impair your brain function. Getting a good night’s rest is incredibly important for you to be relaxed and clear-minded.
You cannot do it all alone. To reach out for help, you have to be able to communicate effectively. You must be able to help others understand your wants and needs. Here are some tips for communicating effectively:
Asking for and accepting help is one of the challenges many people have when caregiving. Accept that you don’t have it all together. It is ok to not be ok. You have reached the limits of what is humanly possible. Do not see asking for help as a weakness. See it as an opportunity to connect with another human being. We are hardwired for connection with others. And it is a normal and natural thing for us to work together. Here are some tips for getting help:
You may think you can do it all alone, but someone must also be caring for the caregiver. Reach out to family and friends to maintain a support network. If you feel like your support system is inadequate, review resources such as the Family Caregiver Alliance. There are also caregiver support groups you can find at hospitals or local organizations. If you are extremely overwhelmed, try a counselor or therapist. Try to talk with someone every day, even if only through social media. Remember that you are not in this alone.