Managing Caregiver Stress
Caregiving is on the top ten most stressful jobs list. The physical and emotional demands on a caregiver are all-consuming. According to a study by ElderCarelink, about 60 percent of caregivers report that their health has deteriorated since they began providing care. Sixty-nine percent describe feeling overwhelmed by the caregiving role. One of the most important ways to become a healthier caregiver is to care for yourself.
Stress is our physical and mental response to the pressures of caregiving and the demands of our everyday life. Stress itself isn’t harmful. In fact, we all need a bit of stress to do our best work. It is our reaction to the stressor that is potentially harmful. Listen very carefully to the clues your mind and body give you. These clues tell you the stress is becoming too much. The clues differ with each individual, but they occur when we are not at our normal relaxed level of functioning: muscle tension, tearfulness, inability to relax, anxiety, depression, anger, difficulty concentrating, misuse of alcohol or drugs, hopelessness, irritability.
When you become aware of the clues, do something about the stress immediately. Stress management doesn’t work if you wait until the evening or the weekend to take care of it. Begin to bring yourself back into balance at the exact moment you are aware of the stress. Choose one of the following ideas that might be helpful to you and use it every day, all day long:
- Deep breathing.
- Stretching your neck and shoulder muscles.
- Making funny faces to release the tension (a good one to do with the care receiver as well).
- Stand up and stretch to the ceiling or push against a door jamb to stretch.
- Take a short walk around the house.
- Call a trusted friend to vent your frustrations.
- Find a short funny video on YouTube
- Eat one piece of chocolate—notice I said one!
There are also long-term interventions that will be helpful in maintaining stress as well. Pay attention to your self-talk. What are you always saying to yourself? Is it negative? If so, begin to think of a more positive twist to your thoughts. For example, if you hear yourself saying over and over "I'm trapped—I hate doing this," try changing that thought to "I'm feeling trapped—what can I do for myself today so I won't feel that way?"
It helps to separate your loved one from their disease or disability in your mind. You can dislike the disease or disability and rant and rave against the disease or disability while still loving the person. Use your imagination and picture the disease or disability as a black or red pulsating blob sitting on a chair and oozing over the sides. Any image works if it helps separate the disease or disability from the care receiver.
See caregiving as a challenge rather than a threat. A threat stops us from doing our best. It drags us down. A challenge brings out the best in us.
According to research, exercise is the number one way to combat stress. It needs to be consistent and needs to be done daily but doesn't need to take a lot of time or energy. Put on a pedometer and walk 10,000 steps. It adds up quickly. Sit and do armchair exercises with the care receiver—swinging your arms, kicking your legs, marching—all to music.
Ask for help. The worst possible scenario is to be a caregiver without support. Even though you don't want to impose on anyone, ask family members or neighbors. I have found neighbors to be natural helpers in most cases. Be specific when you ask for help. For example, "Could you please sit with my husband for an hour on Thursday while I get my hair cut?" People almost always want to help and feel better about themselves for helping. There are programs that offer assistance. See the companion article to this one for ideas.
Stress is a huge challenge but much of it is manageable if we take action. Begin to decrease your stress by becoming more aware of the clues your mind and body give you; then, take action to feel better immediately. Make a commitment to yourself right now by choosing one of the ideas in this article or one you have thought of as you read the article and begin to use it today.
Charles Darwin had it right when he said "It's not the strongest species that survives nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."