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How Caregiver Burnout Damages Our Brains

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What is caregiver burnout and how can we prevent it?

While the impact of work burnout on the brain has been widely studied, less research has been done on how caregiver burnout is more than just stressful — it is actually damaging to the brain.

What is Caregiver Burnout?

The effects of work-related stress on our brains has been well studied over the past several years. One example: a new Finnish study shows the connection between work-related burnout and changes in brain activity when performing stressful tasks.1 In North America, multiple studies report that more than 60% of employees say they experience “high levels of stress, extreme fatigue, and feeling out of control.”

But what about the well-known stresses of caregiving? Can being a caregiver wind up damaging one’s brain? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. Here is a recap on how looking after a loved one can wreak havoc on our gray matter — along with some encouraging words regarding what can be done about it. (Be sure to read to the end of the article to see how to apply for two consecutive days of respite care, one way to ease the stress of caregiving!)

What Does Caregiver Burnout Look Like?

The signs of caregiver burnout mirror many of the common symptoms of stress and depression.2 While there are a wide variety of complaints, the list includes withdrawal from relationships and activities, feeling down or angry, appetite or weight control issues, having difficulty getting a good night’s sleep, extreme fatigue, a lowered immune system, and much more.

In a post entitled, “The effects of caregiver stress on the body and brain,” the Alzheimer’s Care Resource Center points out that the pressures of caregiving often impacts “mind, mood and overall physical health.”3  The article also points out that the degree of burnout can be related to the caregiver’s individual situation and even genetic traits, including “gender, education level, financial circumstances, and previous mental conditions.” So the road to smart caregiving stress management begins with self-awareness. Pay attention to any symptoms that might be developing and deal with them as soon as you can. Toughing things out or denying the problem could lead to serious burnout and even harm your brain.

Situational Versus Long-Term Stress

The everyday roles of caregiving inevitably create challenges to our emotions and psyche. According to the Huffington Post, short-term stress “makes us feel irritable, anxious, tense, distracted and forgetful. But that’s only part of the story.”4

When caregivers cope with stressors by trying to push them away, the body reacts with increased stress hormone (cortisol) levels, which can negatively impact our health physically, emotionally and mentally.

The same Huffington Post article cautions us that turbulent life events can “harm your brain’s memory and learning capacity by reducing the volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions.” In other words, “Chronic stress can shrink your brain.”

How to Handle Caregiver Burnout Before it Derails your Brain

If you’re feeling stress level mount, commit to improving your brain power. Take a time-out and consider some common sense remedies offered by the Mayo Clinic:5

Be open to help. Take a little time and jot down a list of things that family, friends or a healthcare professional can do for you. This runs the gamut from having a friend handle errands, go grocery shopping, do some cooking or just spend time with the person you care for.

Give yourself a break — literally and figuratively. Chances are that you are doing a fine job caring for your loved one. Don’t become paralyzed by striving for perfection. Also remember that a little guilt goes a long way so try to keep guilty feels in perspective

Perform a regular reality check. There’s a tendency for caregivers to run themselves ragged trying for a Herculean effort. Instead, take some time to get organized. Establish realistic goals. And learn to say “no”.

Explore community resources. What do you need? Local resources may be available. Enroll in a class related to your loved one’s situation. Consider joining a support group. Look into services like transportation, meal prep or delivery, or having someone clean the house.

Take care of yourself. Are you sleeping enough? Taking time to exercise? Eating right? Drinking enough water? Do everything within reason to focus on personal health — including a visit with your doctor.

How Respite Care Can Help

Sometimes the best way to give yourself (and your brain) a break is to take time away from the daily grind of caring for your loved one. Respite care is defined as “temporary care of a dependent person, allowing their regular caregiver time to recharge.” This could include having in-home respite, where health care aides provide care while you chill out. Or maybe having the aide provide care while you go on a short vacation or spend the day doing self-care activities like exercising, hiking and visiting with friends is just what you need.

If you or someone you know is a family caregiver, apply for Home Care Assistance’s Caregiver Recharge Grant. In support of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement and the caregiver community, we will sponsor 25 Caregiver Recharge Grants quarterly so family caregivers can enjoy a much-deserved break. Apply to be part of the next round of recipients!

The family caregiver does vital work. Just don’t forget to work on managing your stress level. If you begin experiencing burnout symptoms, don’t wait to reach out for help. Because sometimes, the best way to care for a loved one is to simply look after yourself.

Resourses

  1. https://psychcentral.com/news/2017/04/12/how-work-related-burnout-impacts-brain-activity/118973.html
  2. https://www.webmd.com/women/caregiver-recognizing-burnout#1
  3. https://alzheimerscareresourcecenter.com/wednesday-workshop-the-effects-of-caregiver-stress-on-the-body-and-brain/
  4. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/18/brain-stress_n_6148470.html
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/caregiver-stress/art-20044784

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