Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It may be accompanied by a change in attitude, from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. Burnout can occur when caregivers don’t get the help they need, or if they try to do more than they are able, physically, emotionally, or financially.
Many caregivers also feel guilty if they spend time on themselves. They feel obligated to be there for their loved ones 24/7. Caregivers who are “burned out” may experience fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression.
What causes caregiver burnout?
During pandemic lockdowns in 2020, I believe the loss of support services triggered my burnout. Tasks and care I delegated to others were no longer an option. I did not have the support I needed to care for myself and my family. I know my limits, but the situation required me to push past them. Emily cannot meet her needs on her own. I carried the weight of meeting her needs, my job, family, at the expense of my own needs.
Caregivers often are so busy caring for others that they tend to neglect their own emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The demands on a caregiver’s body, mind, and emotions can easily seem overwhelming, leading to fatigue, hopelessness, and ultimately burnout.
Other factors that can lead to caregiver burnout include:
- Role confusion: Many people are confused when thrust into the role of caregiver. It can be difficult for people to separate their role as caregivers from their roles as spouses, lovers, children, friends, or other close relationships.
- Lack of control: Many caregivers become frustrated by a lack of money, resources, and skills to effectively plan, manage, and organize their loved one’s care.
- Unreasonable demands: Some caregivers place unreasonable burdens upon themselves, in part because they see providing care as their exclusive responsibility. Some family members such as siblings, adult children, or the patient himself/herself may place unreasonable demands on the caregiver. They also may disregard their own responsibilities and place burdens on the person identified as the primary caregiver.
- Other factors: Many caregivers cannot recognize when they are suffering burnout and eventually get to the point where they cannot function effectively. They may even become sick themselves.
What are the signs you may be experiencing caregiver burnout?
- Buffering with excess food, alcohol, television, social media, shopping
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Loss of focus or concentration
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Insomnia or sleep disturbances
- Getting sick more often
- Feeling blue or apathetic
This is just a partial list. We are all unique and you may notice things not listed that may be a sign. Maybe you are having difficulty making decisions. You feel like you cannot do or add “one more thing”. You wish someone would come in and take charge. I know for me, I had thoughts like:
- I cannot make one more decision
- This is too hard
- I am exhausted
- I wish I could run away
- I need a vacation
- I can’t keep going like this
- My bandwidth is tapped out
These are warning signs that you may need a break. You are experiencing caregiver burnout. The good news is you do not need to go to a retreat or spa for an extended period of time to get relief. Developing some simple strategies are usually enough to reduce the burnout and stress.
The best scenario is to develop tools and strategies to prevent burnout before you experience it. Here are some tools that can prevent caregiver burnout:
- Make plans and automate decisions (automate anything you can). Habits are great tools. Create ones that make your life easier.
- Set alarms for medications and other care tasks so you don’t think/worry about them.
- Hire a coach. Sometimes you need someone to help you see things differently. We get tunnel vision and do not see options that are available.*
- Hire a counselor or therapist.
- Know your limitations. We cannot be superheroes every day.
- Seek respite and outside caregiver services. This is vital. I cannot believe how many caregivers think they can do it all by themselves. If 2020 reinforced anything, it is that I know I cannot care for Emily alone.
- Trust others to care for your loved one. They may do it differently. You may have to try out several to find a good fit (like a good pair of jeans), but it is worth the time.
- Share your feelings and your struggles. Do not try to suppress the challenges and the feelings. I always say you have to “feel the feels”. Being sad, angry, mad, frustrated, lonely, isolated are all normal when caring for a disabled or ill loved one.
- Ask for help and be specific about how someone can support you. Example: “Emily has a prescription waiting at CVS. Would you please pick it up and drop it off? I will Venmo the money for it?”
- Take time each day to do something just for yourself. It may be just listening to a song that pumps you up and dancing around the living room. Maybe locking yourself in the bathroom for 5 minutes to do a quick meditation or box breathing.
- Call a friend.
- Lean into your partner if you have one. Share your struggles and be specific in how they can help.
- On that note: nurture your relationships: friends, family, partners. Connection is vital.
- Drink water. Move your body. Establish a regular sleep routine.
- Join a support group. Meeting with others that “get it” helps you feel less isolated. You realize you are not alone.*
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. Laugh.
- Look for ways to create joy each day. Some days have “more suck” than others, but you can always find something to be grateful for. Don’t underestimate the power of gratitude.
- Schedule health and wellness visits for YOU, not just your loved ones. (I define this as boring self-care.)
Bonus information! I began changing my thoughts about caring for Emily. I started changing the conversation in my head. I know it may sound crazy, but it worked like magic. Changing my thoughts, changed everything:
- It is a privilege that I get to care for Emily.
- I chose Emily and love her just as she is.
- Caring for Emily is a gift I get to give her. I do not have to do it, but I am choosing to do it as long as my body will allow me to.
- I can do this joyfully or angrily. It takes the same amount of effort. I choose joy.
- Emily is worthy of my love and compassion. She deserves to be cared for from a place of love and not resentment. (THIS WAS A BIG ONE: LETTING GO OF RESENTMENT.)
- I never would have thought I could do this, but I do. I show up daily and get it done.
- I am stronger than my toughest days.
- Taking time to care for me makes me a better caregiver.
- I cannot pour from an empty pitcher.
If you feel like you are experiencing caregiver burnout, reach out for help. Talk to a loved one, a therapist, counselor, friend, or spiritual leader. Seek resources through your community for added support/care for your loved one. Don’t be an island. Reach out and find connections, support, and resources. Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
You do not have to go through this alone.
*Go to We Are Brave Together to sign up for support, connection.