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. 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.
What Does Caregiver Burnout Look Like?
The signs of caregiver burnout mirror many of the common symptoms of stress and depression. In a post titled, “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.” 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. The Mayo Clinic advises caregivers to be on the lookout for these risk factors:
• Living in the same house as the loved one you are looking after
• Feeling isolated socially
• Feeling depressed
• Going through financial difficulties
• Lack of coping skills and difficulty solving problems
• When caregiving is more of an obligation than it is a choice
Burnout is also more likely when a caregiver spends a lot of time providing care, increasing the sense that you never have a real break. They might also feel like they just have to tough things out. But this, too, could lead to serious burnout — and might even harm their brain.
Pay Attention to the Signs of Caregiver Stress
Caregivers can be so involved with the person they care for that they aren’t aware that their personal health is taking a back seat. Fight the tendency to slip into denial and be on the lookout for symptoms like these:
• Feeling overwhelmed and worried
• Feeling fatigued a lot of the time
• Waking up tired or sleeping too much
• Gaining or losing weight
• Becoming impatient, even angry
• Feeling less interested in activities that were once enjoyable
• Feeling sad, seemingly for no reason in particular
• Experiencing headaches, body aches, or other physical issues
• Drinking too much or depending on recreational or prescription drugs to help with coping
Situational Versus Long-Term Stress
The everyday roles of caregiving inevitably create challenges to our emotions and psyches. 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.”
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…
Stress can Shrink Your Brain!
According to a story published by Touro University on how stress impacts the brain, intense stress that occurs over an extended period can become “chronic” or “toxic.”
This persistent form of stress can affect how the body and the brain are able to function. As covered above, the body’s reaction to chronic stress is to produce more cortisol — too much, in fact, for the body to let go of. Over time, the excess cortisol decreases proper brain function. The bottom line, according to the Touro report: “Stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain.”
How to Handle Caregiver Burnout Before it Derails Your Brain
If you’re feeling stress levels mount, commit to improving your brain power. Take a time-out and consider some common sense remedies offered by the Mayo Clinic.
- 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 feelings in perspective.
- Consider respite services. Spend a little time away from your duties now and then. You can do this by having a professional caregiver (or another family member or close friend) to visit with your mom or dad while you spend a few hours outside the home.
- 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. 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. Look into services like transportation, meal prep or delivery, or having someone clean the house.
- Connect with a support group. You can probably find a group that serves caregivers in the same situation as you are. Imagine letting go of some of your stress by sharing your thoughts, feelings and experiences with people who “get you.”
- Put your house in order. A good, old-fashioned to-do list and establishing a daily routine may help your feel more secure and focused.
- Get moving. Make exercise and being physically active a priority. You’ll feel better — and be a better caregiver, too.
- Take some time away from your job. If you are both a primary caregiver and work outside the home, the demands can get the best of you. You might qualify for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to look after a loved one. If the company you work for has a human resources office, ask them about the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
- Take care of yourself. Are you sleeping enough? Paying attention to your diet? Drinking enough water? Do everything within reason to focus on your personal health — including a visit to your doctor.
The family caregiver does vital work. Just don’t forget to reach out for help. Because sometimes, the best way to care for a loved one is to look after yourself.