It happens routinely. It gets shrugged off routinely. Chances are likely that you too will try and sweep it under the carpet. "It" is heightened caregiver stress. This occurs when caregivers focus all their time, attention, energy, and resources towards helping and supporting a loved one but forget to care for themselves. Instead, caregivers must be mindful of their own health and well-being. Why? A caregiver’s personal health is just as important as a loved one’s health. Without sufficient self-care, caregivers can hurt themselves, become ineffective, and experience poor health or other negative issues. But even though caregiver stress is one of the most common problems caregivers face, there are ways you can manage it.
What is Caregiver Stress?
Caregiver stress results from feeling overwhelmed. As humans, we have our limits on what we can do. Imagine a street performer juggling one too many flaming torches in the air. Caregiver stress is your mind and body’s natural response when you are trying to do too much. You can experience caregiver stress physically, mentally, emotionally, and even financially.
Other factors can lead to increased caregiver stress as well. Since caregivers can be on-call around-the-clock, they might try to squeeze in too much, fight to find balance, and watch helplessly as a loved one declines. As a former co-caregiver, I battled with my Dad’s gradual memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is no cure. However, my job was to continue keeping Dad comfortable, happy, and safe and I couldn't let the stress get the best of me.
15 Ways to Reduce Caregiver Stress
Put the oxygen mask on yourself first in a diving plane. Remember to practice your own self-care. Take some time for you. No matter how you say it, the message remains the same. If you have prioritized your loved one, it’s time to switch your thinking. Concentrate on you as well. Try any - or all - of these recommendations to practice self-care and reduce caregiver stress:
- Find a healthy outlet. Choose something that helps you relax and recharge. For me, I found writing to be a calming activity. Writing gave me the opportunity to (privately or publicly) vent about what was going on in my life. Walking was another satisfying outlet. By lacing up my hiking boots and going for a brisk stroll outside, I found my own stress level lessened. Mix up your walks for variety. Explore different neighborhoods. Climb a few hills. Follow a trail. When I didn’t have a specific destination in mind, I packed along my cell phone and bus fare to get me back home (if needed).
- Breathe. Yes, this is a natural process but be more attentive to your breath. Find a quiet spot, close your eyes, breathe in (deeply) through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. To enhance this experience, try sitting near a garden where you can smell the aroma of fresh flowers. Deep breathing is great for your health and is a simple exercise that can be done anywhere and anytime. By concentrating more on your breathing, you can feel more relaxed. Try saying a prayer or meditation for caregivers as you're focusing on your breathing.
- Exercise. Walk on a treadmill, go for a swim, take an aerobics class, ride a stationary bicycle, lift weights, or stretch. Regular exercise works wonders to relieve mounting tension in your body and personal stress. Move daily. Vary up your exercise regime to target other problematic spots on your body and to avoid boredom.
- Meet with friends. Chances are that you have been ignoring your friends for too long. Reach out to someone you care about and suggest a coffee meeting. Socializing gets you out of the house and provides a pleasant distraction from your caregiving routine. If you can’t find time to call, become more active with e-mailing or texting friends. This way you can send and reply to messages at a time that is convenient for you.
- Listen to music. Slide a CD into your stereo, tune in to a concert on YouTube, or create your own personal playlist with Spotify. Sing along and even dance! You will feel better and more energized.
- Clean the house. Turn that negative stress into something positive. Do some laundry, load dirty dishes into the dishwasher, or vacuum. When it comes to house cleaning tasks, I will often start with completing a smaller job such as wiping off the bathroom counter. Celebrating the small victory give me a feeling of accomplishment and spurs me on to tackle bigger projects.
- Take a bath. Soak away stress in the bathtub. For increased enjoyment, add soap bubbles or Epsom salts to the water. Install a bathtub pillow and a shelf. This shelf rests on the bathtub walls above the water and provides you with a dry spot for a book or a glass of wine. If you have family, remember to post a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the bathroom door!
- Watch comedy. See a live comedy show, watch a situation-comedy television show, or choose a funny movie at the local theater. Laughing is a natural human response and can be a great stress-buster!
- Get a massage. A massage can be great to relax a stressed caregiver. Look around for a masseuse who you feel comfortable with. I’ve discovered a local massage school looking for “massage models.” Models consent to treatments from massage students looking to gain experience. It’s a win-win situation for all! A cheaper alternative would be to use a foam roller or tennis ball. Place the ball on the wall or the floor and roll your sore spots over top of it.
- Pursue previously enjoyed hobbies. What pastime(s) do you remember loving? Caregivers may ignore these and focus on helping mom or dad instead. Do something you previously enjoyed, give back to yourself, and reduce caregiver stress. While you’re at it, why not explore other areas of interest? Combat stress through a chorus group, volunteering, a cooking class, learning to play a musical instrument, or joining a bowling league.
- Brew a cup of tea. Sipping a cup of your favorite herbal flavors can bring you comfort and help reduce caregiver stress. Teas taste and smell wonderful.
- Get creative. If you’re like me and choose to write, that’s just one creative outlet! Pottery, painting, and piano lessons may be on your list of things to try. Think outside the box and plant a flower or vegetable garden in your back yard. You may not have an urge to create. In this case, visit the local art gallery to appreciate other’s work. Join the audience at your local coffee shop supporting local artists.
- Get organized. Make a calendar with a full schedule of your care receiver’s doctor appointments. Set reminders on your phone or in a day planner with the times that your loved one needs to take medication. Creating a to-do list or checklist each day will help you keep everything in order and dodge the feeling of caregiver stress.
- Stay in the moment. Rather than thinking of the subsequent challenges you’ll face in the future, focus on the task at hand. Being present will help prevent negative feelings from creeping up.
- Ask for help. Don’t be hesitant to ask for help or feel ashamed to do so. Feeling overwhelmed is a common emotion when experiencing caregiver stress and if you are feeling overwhelmed, seek support. Reach out to friends or family to see if they can help care for your parent or loved one for an afternoon while you get errands done or check something else off this self-care list.
What are the Signs of Caregiver Stress?
Caregivers can experience stress in many ways. The problem can begin with small signals and then build to more major concerns. Do your loved one and yourself a favor and watch for these eight signs of caregiver burnout:
Caregivers can easily suffer from exhaustion. Being constantly “on the go” can be tiresome. The simple answer would seem to be a good night’s sleep. This, however, is often impossible for caregivers to achieve. Regular sleep patterns are critical for people to establish. However, this is challenging for caregivers to achieve since they may go to bed late and rise early. Any sleep experienced by a caregiver can be interrupted by insomnia or your loved one's needs. Alternatively, some caregivers may be getting too much sleep. When life becomes too much, people can be tempted to stay in bed, hide, and pull the covers over their head. Scientific research reminds us that eight hours of sleep per night is best. Trying some sleep tips for caregivers, like meditating before bed, can help.
Lack of Appetite
Caregivers may not desire food or mistakenly believe that they do not have the time to prepare a nutritious meal. Proper eating habits are vital for caregivers to get the fuel they need to function. A muffin and coffee in the morning will likely not get you to lunchtime. Try eating fresh fruits with hardboiled eggs instead. Both options offer convenience but the latter offers nutritional value that will keep you going.
If you find yourself losing or gaining an abnormal amount of weight, you need to evaluate your own nutrition. Skipping meals is common amongst caregivers due to the lack of appetite discussed above. Before you know it, you’ve already missed breakfast or lunch, and therefore haven’t gotten the necessary energy to carry you throughout the day. Overeating is another problem caregiver might face when stressed, so large amounts of weight gain should be treated seriously as well.
Headaches are a common symptom of caregiver stress. Make sure you stay hydrated. Drinking water – and plenty of it – can help alleviate that headache you've been fighting all afternoon.
Inability to Relax or Focus
As a caregiver, you will often think about your loved one. This is to be expected but not always constructive. Often when I laid in bed at night, my mind was working overtime. I continually dwelled on caregiving matters, remembered things to do over the next several days, and worried about Mom and Dad – what were they doing now? Were they both alright? Should I check to see if my cell phone is on – again – in the chance of an emergency? With an active mind, it is impossible to relax. Continual distraction can be counterproductive or even dangerous. Imagine yourself losing focus while driving or during a project meeting at work. If you feel your brain going into overdrive, try writing down a list of the things you need to do when you get home or the following day.
Personally, I’m very easy-going but I found myself getting increasingly annoyed. Two high-problem issues for me were traffic and long line-ups (both situations completely out of my control). When plans are not working, caregivers may lash out in anger at others. In situations like these, try taking a few deep breaths.
Anxiety and Depression
Caregivers may imagine a bleak future and suffer from sadness or depression. They may be focusing on the imminent loss of a loved one or believing there is no help available. Anxiety is also quite common with caregivers. Check in with your doctor if you think you may have anxiety or depression.
Caregivers may rely on alcohol, drugs, or even prescription medications to comfort them. Be careful here! These will often do more harm than good for an individual. Finding support groups can be a helpful way to overcome any dependencies that might have formed.
The 3 Stages of Caregiver Stress
Caregiver stress can start small and grow. Gnawing frustrations with the daily routine or others can become a full-scale blowout. Remain calm and focused on the job at hand. Caregivers should remain mindful of these stages of caregiver stress.
- Stress Arousal. This begins when frustration at things, other people, or events begins to build. It is possible that many of these factors are not in your control. It is better to try to accept them or work with them as best as possible. Caregivers experiencing stress arousal may grind their teeth overnight, become more forgetful, and suffer from body pain. Stress arousal must be a priority over the other stages of caregiver stress. A person needs to identify a problem before he or she can solve that problem.
- Burnout. Here, caregivers hit the proverbial brick wall. Caregiving may have become too much for them to handle. They have done everything possible and cannot proceed. Caregiver burnout may cause caregivers to become listless, procrastinate with completing jobs, and withdraw from their own social contacts.
- Compassion Fatigue. This occurs when caregivers reach a point of sheer exhaustion and feelings of hopelessness. Caregivers experiencing compassion fatigue can't detach themselves from the care they give their loved one. They tend to experience their loved one's difficulties as their own. When caregivers experience compassion fatigue, they may feel that their efforts are not worth the trouble and may not want to give any more of themselves to the cause. Caregivers may even try to shut off their own compassion.
How Stressed are You?
To get a better grasp on your own stress level, try this easy quiz. Once you self-identify with caregiver stress, your life can become easier. Instead of trying to ignore caregiver stress and sweep it under the proverbial rug, now you can put a finger on the problem and take some concrete steps towards finding solutions that work for you. Make sure you're managing stress instead of letting stress manage you.
If you’re looking for even more support, apply for a Caregiver Recharge Grant from Home Care Assistance and The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement. This grant provides family caregivers with 48 hours of free care so they can take the time they need to rest and relax.