Health & Wellness

The 5 Surprising Signs of Caregiver Burnout (+ 3 Stress Management Tips)

Throughout my life, I have taken on the role of caregiver for others. I shared the responsibility of caring for my mom when she was going through chemo. And while it was one of the times I’m most grateful for, filled with long talks and hugs, it was also the most exhausting. When my duties were over, it would take me days to recover, and I would worry about her when she wasn’t with me.

Caring for another person is a very selfless thing to do, but it does not come without some consequences. It often comes with a ton of stress and worry, especially if you’re caring for a relative or someone important to you. And this can easily lead to caregiver burnout.

As I think of my experiences in caregiving and watch others fulfill this role for their families, I see a very significant impact on the caregivers that often goes unnoticed or treated. When you give your heart to someone else, you often forget to nurture yourself. And this is why most caregivers are approaching burnout and develop other health consequences.

But what, exactly, is caregiver burnout, and how common is it? Let’s take a closer look at how it’s becoming increasingly common and what you—or someone you love—can do if you suspect it’s happening.

 

What Is Caregiver Burnout?

The role of a caregiver is almost always filled by a loved one. Usually, the caregiver helps a very close friend or family member who can no longer care for themselves with their personal needs. These needs commonly include basic care (such as hygiene, meal preparation, etc.) medical, financial, and others as they arise.

Regardless of the personal relationship between a caregiver and the dependent person and how rewarding it can be, the act of caregiving is a major responsibility that can easily become overwhelming and even exhausting—both physically and emotionally. After all, the requirements are usually high with little recovery time for the caregiver.

Often, the demands on the caregiver become so great that he or she begins to experience caregiver burnout, which is when the caregiver reaches a state of exhaustion—physically, mentally, and emotionally. [1] And this occurs as a result of experiencing the chronic stress the so commonly occurs with caregiving.

Now, before we discuss how you can identify the signs of caregiver burnout, let’s look at how common caregiving actually is.

The Stats on Caregiving

In order to understand how common caregiver burnout is in our country, we must first review the rates of caregiving in the U.S.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, over 65 million Americans (about 30 percent of adults) served as caregivers for an ill or disabled relative in the past year. [2]

Moreover, 70 percent of the caregivers who also work full-time report suffering from work-related difficulties due to their caregiving responsibilities. And 70 percent also reported having to take unpaid leave to fulfill their caregiver roles. [3]

Unfortunately, the effects of caregiving extend to impacting the caregiver’s health as well. Approximately 50 percent of all caregivers report not having any personal time for themselves. And this is resulting in an increase in personal health concerns and conditions.

More than half of all caregivers in the U.S. state that their health has taken a turn for the worse since they first began providing care for their loved ones—largely due to their inability to meet their own needs. Amazingly, the report spending an average of 19 days a month strictly caring for their loved ones. That doesn’t include time spent working or taking care of any other needs or demands. [4]

When you consider all of these factors, it’s easy to see how caregiver burnout can occur so easily, isn’t it? But what should you look out for? Keep reading to learn what signs indicate there may be a problem.

5 Surprising Signs of Caregiver Burnout

Let’s take a look at five of the surprising signs you or someone you love may be experiencing caregiver burnout.

1. You have less energy than you once had.

In a 2009 study, researchers compared the fatigue levels of 73 caregivers and 43 non-caregivers. Based Multidimensional Fatigue Symptom Inventory they found that the caregivers’ fatigue scores were 18.1 points higher than those of the non-caregivers.

Moreover, when mastery of caregiving was low, rates of physical fatigue were significantly higher than when levels of mastery were higher. [5]

2. You find yourself getting sick constantly. 

We’ve previously discussed how chronic stress impacts your immune system function, which makes you more vulnerable to illness. Think of it this way: When your body is constantly focusing on managing your stress, it limits its ability to keep your immune system working properly.

So, you’re more likely to find that you have chronic allergies or often catch everyday viruses. But now studies are finding that caregiver burnout is also associated with more serious illnesses as well.

For example, researchers have found that chronic stress, such as that experienced in caregivers of patients with serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, has been show to increase your risk of developing infections as well as even decrease the effectiveness of any vaccines you may have. Additionally, it’s been found to speed cancer growth and even speed aging by promoting telomere shortening. [6]

Even more shocking? One study found that a caretaker of a spouse with dementia is six times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia themselves in comparison to those whose spouses didn’t have dementia. [7]

Once again, researchers suspect the stress associated with caregiver burnout is at the root of the connection. Not surprising given all we know about how stress impacts your health, is it?

3. You constantly feel exhausted, regardless of your amount of sleep.

When you’re experiencing caregiver burnout, you’re suffering from a chronic state of stress that is known to impact sleep. But why does it affect your sleep?

Well, sleep is part of your parasympathetic nervous system, which is essentially when your body is calm and performing daily functions such as digestion, toxin removal, and cellular repair.

When you’re in a state of chronic stress, your body has trouble calming down enough to either fall asleep or stay asleep. This also impacts your ability to enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the stage of sleep in which your body repairs itself and reenergizes.

So, even if you get many hours of sleep, if it’s not the type of sleep your body requires to restore itself, you’re bound to feel exhausted.

4. You have trouble relaxing and/or caring for your own needs.

As I mentioned above, more than half of all caregivers in the U.S. state that their health has taken a turn for the worse since they first began providing care for their loved ones. In fact, 59 percent stated that their health has become either “moderately worse” or “a lot worse.” [8]

Of those who felt their health had become worse, 87 percent shared that caregiving impacted their energy and sleep, while 70 percent said stress was the biggest health impact they’ve seen. Additionally, 60 percent said they now feel pain and achiness and 52 percent said they suffer from depression.

Other areas of concern? Headaches, weight, loss of physical fitness, shortness of breath, heart attack scares, and more. Not surprisingly, most of the respondents tied their symptoms to one common root cause: stress.

5. You feel increasingly impatient and irritable.

When you’re under stress and experiencing caregiver burnout, you’re more likely to suffer from mood swings. This can result in increasing episodes of being impatient and irritable.

In fact, according to a 2018 study on caregivers, 41 percent reported feeling depressed, moody, and resentful due to their caregiving duties. [9] Researchers believe this happens due to the impact stress has on proinflammatory cytokines (molecules responsible for cell signaling). [10]

 

Caregiver burnout - Dr. Pingel

 

While it may seem helpless, there are actually a few things you can do to help manage caregiver burnout. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways you can be proactive about your own health and wellbeing.

How to Avoid or Manage Caregiver Burnout

It can be really tough to avoid or manage caregiver burnout. After all, this isn’t just any job: You’re caring for someone who is very special to you, which means you’re more likely to take on more and more responsibilities. It really doesn’t get more personal.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help avoid or manage caregiver burnout. Here are a few of my top tips.

1. Set realistic goals.

When you first take on the role of caregiver, it can be easy to become consumed in the idea of covering all of your loved one’s needs immediately. But caregiving is a huge responsibility that takes time to master.

Start by setting realistic goals for yourself. Click here for tips on how to set realistic goals that can help you stay on track and feel positive about your progress.

2. Ask for support.

If you feel that you may be suffering from caregiver burnout, it’s important to ask for support. And this can come in many different forms.

First, consider connecting with other caregivers for tips, resources, and general emotional support. Sometimes talking to someone who understands your situation can help with any anxiety or stress you may be feeling. Click here for a list of resources and organizations that specifically help caregivers.

Additionally, studies have shown that leaning on your friends for emotional support can be especially beneficial for your health. Leaning on your friends have not only been linked to longer lifespans but also decrease your risk of certain diseases and health concerns. [11]

3. Support your body’s stress response.

Finally, one of the most effective ways to help manage or improve caregiver burnout is to support your body’s stress response. After all, chronic stress results in adrenal fatigue, which is linked to so many of today’s most common health concerns.

To support your diet’s stress response, you must support your adrenal health. And this involved a four-step process that includes your diet, herbal support, exercise, and the mind-body connection. Click here to learn more about how you can better support your body to handle the stress resulting from your caregiving role. And remember, there are things you can do each day to help mitigate the effects of caregiver burnout.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Caring for another person is a very selfless thing to do, but it does not come without some consequences. It often comes with a ton of stress and worry, which can easily lead to caregiver burnout.
  • Caregiver burnout occurs when the caregiver reaches a state of exhaustion—physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s the result of experiencing the chronic stress the so commonly occurs with caregiving.
  • Luckily, there are things you can do to help prevent or manage caregiver burnout, such as setting realistic goals, asking for support, and even supporting your body’s stress management.

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