We all have stress. It is a byproduct of life, like dirty laundry and empty Starbucks cups. Our jobs, our families, and our daily environments are all potential sources of stress.
Yet, there is a unique form of stress that affects those who care and provide for people who, due to illness, injury, disability, or aging, require regular assistance to live and function. These support providers are known as caregivers, and the pressures their role puts on them is known as caregiver stress.
Who are caregivers?
There are two categories of caregivers. Professional caregivers are people who perform their role in a paid position. This category includes healthcare workers like nurses and orderlies; people who work in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes; professionals employed by children’s hospitals and palliative care centers; and certified personal care providers who provide services for people in their homes.
Then there are informal or family caregivers, who provide care and support for a loved one as part of their daily lives.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), most informal caregivers are women. Almost 60% of them have paid jobs on top of their caregiving responsibilities. Nearly half of them must administer injections or manage medicines on a daily basis as part of their caregiving responsibilities.
In a 2012 survey, the HHS reported that 36% of Americans had provided unpaid care to another adult with an illness or disability in the previous twelve months. The number of people who will become informal caregivers is expected to grow as the comparative number of elderly in the general population increases over the next 5-10 years.
What is caregiver stress?
Simply put, caregiver stress is the physical and emotional fatigue caused by providing constant care to those who need it.
Many of the symptoms of caregiver stress are similar to those caused by the stress of everyday life, such as:
- Poor digestion and heartburn
- Weakened immune system
- Low energy levels
- Restless sleep
- Back, neck, or joint pain
Professional and informal caregiver stress
Both professional and informal caregivers are potential candidates for experiencing caregiver stress. However, there is a key difference between these two groups of people.
Professional caregivers receive education and training that makes them more aware of the symptoms of caregiver stress. Their training provides them with strategies and techniques for reducing the tension associated with their jobs. In fact, employers of professional caregivers often provide resources specifically meant to help their workers deal with job-related stress.
Informal caregivers are different. Unlike professional caregivers, they did not choose to be in their situation. They are more emotionally involved with the person being tended to, making it much harder to be objective if things become difficult. And, informal caregivers rarely have the same resources as a hospital or assisted-living facility—causing them to experience significant emotional and financial strain.
Informal caregivers who must also hold a steady job may not get a sympathetic or understanding response from their employer. This can lead to scheduling conflicts and possible penalties, or even dismissal.
All of these factors make informal caregivers more prone to experience unique emotional symptoms related to their situation.
Symptoms of caregiver stress
Informal caregivers may experience the following stress symptoms:
Resentment and Guilt: Informal caregivers often feel resentment towards the person they are caring for, which leads to feelings of guilt and self-reproach.
Isolation and Desertion: Overwhelmed informal caregivers might feel like they are hopelessly alone, as though their friends and family members have abandoned them.
Distance and Numbness: As stress levels max out, informal caregivers may create emotional distance between themselves and the person they’re caring for, eventually becoming numb to the person’s situation, and their own response to it.
On top of this are the long-term health consequences of living with continuous stress. People in this situation are far more likely to:
- Develop chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.
- Suffer from severe depression and anxiety disorders.
- Have a life-threatening health event like a heart attack, stroke, or aneurism.
Thankfully, there are ways caregivers can mitigate the physical and emotional strain associated with providing constant care for someone.
How do you deal with caregiver stress?
Dealing with caregiver stress starts with recognizing and accepting the symptoms of stress as a health issue, not as a personal weakness that you need to overcome.
Caregivers often view the emotional symptoms of stress as a personal character flaw, which can lead to thoughts like these:
- “I am a terrible person for being angry at someone who is impaired or helpless.”
- “Why has everyone left me all alone with this responsibility?”
- “If I could start feeling less, I would be able to deal with this situation better.”
These are all common emotional responses to caregiver stress, and should not be seen as personal failings. Instead, they are symptoms of a health condition that needs to be recognized and acknowledged as such in order to deal with the root cause.
Helpful strategies for reducing caregiver stress
Health experts and caregiver community groups have created a wealth of resources to help people deal with caregiver stress. Here are some of the common strategies given by these sources:
- Join a support group for caregivers. There are both online and community caregiver support groups where you can share experiences and receive valuable information. For example, the Caregiver Education page of Family Caregiver Alliance’s website is a great source of information and resources.
- Ask for and accept help. Many of us freely help other people, but are unwilling to ask for help ourselves. Help comes in many forms: running errands, meal planning and preparation, housekeeping, or taking a shift with your loved one so you can step out. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be ashamed to accept it.
- Attend to your personal health. Being a caregiver is a physically and emotionally demanding activity that can take its toll on your health. Don’t just make a care checklist for the person you are tending to; make one for yourself as well. Maintaining your own physical and mental health lets you give the best level of care to your loved one.
- Be mindful of your emotions. Many caregivers believe they must put aside their emotions in order to provide proper care. But, having emotions is a critical part of physical and mental health. Instead of trying to crush negative emotions, be mindful when they occur. One strategy to use when feeling overwhelmed is the RAIN process:
- Recognize what is happening.
- Allow the experience to happen.
- Investigate your emotions with compassion.
- Naturally return to a state of balance.
There are many more tips and strategies available online for dealing with caregiver stress. You can also consult with health professionals like your doctor, and speak to professional caregivers who work in hospitals and nursing homes.
You can manage caregiver stress
We are all at our best when we are physically and mentally healthy. Being an excellent caregiver starts with taking excellent care of yourself, which gives you the balance and energy needed to provide the best support and treatment for your loved one.
There are sacrifices involved with being a caregiver, but you can still live a positive life with the person you’re caring for by recognizing the symptoms of caregiver stress, and learning how to deal with it.