What would happen to a car that, day in and day out, simply never stopped running? Easy: it’d break down. This is what happens to caregivers when they don’t stop and take care of themselves.
A certain amount of stress is normal, especially when providing consistent care. But when you’re plagued by constant exhaustion, disinterest in activities you used to love or feel like you have absolutely nothing left to give, you may be experiencing caregiver burnout.
In this article, we lay out the symptoms and causes of this serious condition and provide healing tips to avoid burning out.
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What is Caregiver Burnout?
Caregiver burnout is the significant physical, mental and emotional fatigue one experiences when providing long-term care for another. This can be confused with caregiver stress, a condition which is still cause for concern, but often is the precursor to the more severe caregiver burnout syndrome. Caregiver burnout can also be confused with compassion fatigue, though the two differ.
Caregiver Burnout Vs Compassion Fatigue: What’s the Difference?
While caregiver burnout is specific to caregivers, compassion fatigue is more general and is characterized by feeling overwhelmed by the suffering of others. In the past, compassion fatigue was an issue that commonly plagued health care professionals. People who work in the medical field frequently see or hear about tragedies most of us don’t want to even imagine. However, due to the Internet and smartphones, we now have instant access to all kinds of suffering. We can scroll through tragic news stories, videos, social media posts… the list goes on.
Signs of compassion fatigue include feeling hopeless, increased complaining and feeling excessively burdened by the suffering of others.
Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout
Some of the signs of caregiver burnout are similar to compassion fatigue and caregiver stress. However, there are serious symptoms that specifically suggest you’ve been burned out:
- Rapid change in weight or appetite
- Body aches
- Migraines or persistent headaches
- Getting sick more often and for longer
- Exhaustion you can’t shake, regardless of sleep
- Feeling hopeless, like your stress will never end
- Anxiety/Panic attacks
- Feeling betrayed or alone
- Isolating yourself
- Low self-esteem, worthlessness
Causes of Caregiver Burnout
Burnout can be traced back to many sources. However, three common causes of caregiver burnout include: the burden of the actual caregiving tasks, self-inflicted pressure and lack of adequate rest.
Caregivers do so much more than the name implies. Not only do they offer emotional support for their loved ones, but they also typically engage in burdensome tasks that can heap on the stress. According to caregiver demographics from the Family Caregiver Alliance, those who provide support for a loved one spend shocking amounts of time on these tasks.
In an average month, caregivers spend this much time assisting their loved one:
- 13 days shopping, preparing meals, cleaning the house, driving and giving medication
- 6 days feeding, dressing, grooming, walking, bathing and assistance toileting
- 13 hours researching care services and disease information, coordinating doctors’ appointments and managing finances
Another cause of burnout is pressure. Pressure comes at care providers from all sides, whether it be from family members or the care receiver. However, the main source of this tension actually comes from the caregivers themselves. Roughly half of caregivers report feeling like they don’t have a choice about performing clinical duties and that this feeling is self-inflicted. They feel like caregiving is a personal responsibility because no one else can do it or because financial constraints prevent them from getting professional assistance.
Finally, when caregivers forego the physical and mental care they need themselves, burnout is basically inevitable. This can look like consistently getting less than 7-8 hours of sleep, having trouble finding time to eat regular meals and spending little to no time on vacation, with friends or partaking in hobbies. It’s an unfortunate statistic that unpaid caregivers report positive activities in their respective daily lives have been reduced 27.2% due to their responsibilities.
Tips to Avoid and Recover from Caregiver Burnout?
Even if you feel like you’ll never get back your energy, don’t worry. We offer healing advice from actual care providers and other leaders in self-care to help you get your spark back. Here are 10 inspiring tips to help prevent caregiver burnout.
1. Rally your community for support
You’d be surprised how much support you can get just by asking for it. Don’t downplay what you’re going through or worry about being a burden on others. Ask your neighbors, coworkers, friends and family for the help you need. In most cases, they’ll gladly go above and beyond your call for aid!
“Just recently my husband at 47 had triple bypass surgery. I had constant help from my circle of friends, neighbors, community, family and church. I had meals brought in for 3 weeks, my mother in law stayed with me for 8 weeks, neighbors called and helped with rides for my boys, sisters from church send me cards, messages to uplift our soul. My attitude was wonderful. I had a phrase that I constantly repeated: Smile and wave. It helped a lot.”
Yvette Perez Stevenson
2. Check in with yourself every single day
The irony of caregiving is that the person giving so much to others frequently forgets to give themselves the same treatment. Try taking a few minutes of alone time each night and asking yourself these 6 questions:
- Did I get 7-8 hours of sleep last night?
- Did I eat 3 meals and a snack today?
- Did I drink 8 glasses of water today?
- Did I get any exercise today?
- Did I spend time on an activity I enjoy today?
- Did I spend time with someone other than the person I care for?
If the answer to more than one of these questions is no, it’s time to reevaluate your daily schedule. Sleep, proper nutrition and hobbies are all human necessities, and you deserve them just as much as anyone else. It’s time to make time for you.
3. Give yourself some appreciation
A recent caregiver appreciation study found that caregivers who feel more appreciated experience greater emotional wellbeing. Sometimes, due to illnesses or disabilities, the loved ones caregivers provide for cannot adequately show appreciation for all their help. A lack of appreciation is discouraging for caregivers and can easily fester into resentment.
Fortunately, there are a few helpful tactics you can try to get the recognition you deserve:
- Join an online support group to hear kind words. (Tip: Every CaringBridge site offers a Guestbook for your loved ones to offer encouraging messages.)
- Don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back. Treat yourself to a massage, a nice meal or a new pair of shoes at the end of a hard week.
- If you feel comfortable, try asking a good friend, family member or partner to send you a thank you note once a month. Though the message may not be from the care receiver, it can feel really good to receive recognition and gratitude from those around you.
- Finally, if appreciation is something your care receiver can feasibly work on, consider talking to them gently about how good it would make you feel to hear them share the occasional word of gratitude.
4. Practice forgiveness and gratitude
Caregivers are tough cookies, but there’s no such thing as perfection. Perfectionism, blame and self-loathing all contribute to caregiver burnout. Focusing on self-forgiveness, and also forgiving those around you, is incredibly healing. For inspiration, try this creative forgiveness prompt to help you write, paint or speak your story and achieve peace.
And don’t forget to take time to step out of your daily routine to reflect on what you’re grateful for, whether it be big or small. You can be thankful for the help being offered by others, for the beautiful weather or for yourself. You’ll feel the pressure begin to lift as you practice being grateful each day.
5. Learn to accept help from others
You can do this. But you can’t do this alone. Caregivers often bring stress upon themselves simply because they won’t allow others to pitch in. Listen to these caregivers below who found the help of others to be critical in avoiding burnout:
“Learn to accept help. If you can afford to hire to clean your home once a month or to plow your driveway, do it. Walk. See your friends for a meal periodically. A massage. Eat healthy. Get rest. Only do the necessities. Make meals in bulk and freeze them. Turn off negativity such as the news. Don’t let toxic people into your life. Pray.”
Kelly Slusarski Frank
“Accept help from others! There are so many that want to help. You can’t possibly do it all by yourself. Even if it is the littlest thing!”
Shauna Wischnewski Joas
Additionally, you can use the Online Planner through a CaringBridge site to help you coordinate and share caring tasks. It’s a simple, effective way to get others involved with providing care.
6. Cultivate hobbies as an outlet for stress
You may spend a significant portion of your time providing care, but it’s important to remember that your identity is so much more than that. Be intentional about keeping your interests alive so you can channel the strain of being a caregiver in a positive way and get back to being yourself.
“Allow yourself to be defined as anything but a caregiver, if you spend an inordinate amount of time giving care…cultivate hobbies as ways to be known, so that others know what to talk about other than the caretaking you do (they probably secretly admire you and may want to focus on that aspect of who you are).”
Shelli Tacheny Laudet
“I have made myself return to teaching/participating in martial arts, albeit in short duration’s, but it’s the break I need.”
“Spend one hour alone each day. Not running errands or doing chores. Spend your time alone in a quiet place to decompress, to pray to relive good memories. Spend one hour for you.”
7. Get organized
What feels more chaotic than disorganization? Not much. Introducing structure and order into your life is a great defense against stressors and gives you back control. When everything is in its place, that’s one less thing to worry about. For caregivers, this could look like:
- Organizing all medical files into a designated folder for easy access.
- Keeping a color-coded daily planner.
- Making sure your vehicle is cleaned regularly.
- Rearranging your closet, pantry and bathrooms so you never have to frantically search for that favorite sweater, the garlic powder or the mirror cleaner.
8. Minimize decisions
The sheer amount of decisions you have to make on a daily basis can be one of the most stressful parts of caregiving (and can actually cause what’s known as decision fatigue). Finding ways to lower the amount of choices you have to make is a surefire way to avoid burnout. Here are a few of our suggestions:
- Stick to a consistent daily care schedule, so that you know what’s coming.
- Get serious about meal prepping.
- Pick out clothes beforehand for the whole week. Many successful business people wear the same outfits nearly every day to avoid that pesky decision fatigue.
9. Talk with a professional therapist
You can’t care for others without caring for yourself. So many caregivers reach unmanageable levels of stress because they don’t have someone to talk honestly with about their experiences. Don’t neglect your mental health. Try making an appointment with a therapist to see how they can help you overcome or avoid caregiver burnout.
10. Join a support group
One of the most distressing symptoms of caregiver burnout is feeling isolated. But remember this: You are truly not alone. Joining a caregiver support group can be one of the most therapeutic and powerful actions you can take for self-care. The benefits of support groups include healing loneliness, improving coping skills and encouraging honest and open communication.
Keep on coping, caregivers
Caregivers have been referred to by health professionals as “the hidden patients.” When self-care is left to the wayside, the effects can be damaging. But don’t be scared: by prioritizing your mental and physical health, you can successfully avoid caregiver burnout and get back in touch with yourself.
Caregiver Assistant and Support Groups
- AARP (1-888) 687-2277
- Elizabeth Dole Foundation Hidden Heroes (202) 249-7171
- Family Caregiver Alliance (1-800) 445-8106
- Caregiver.com (954) 893-0550
- Caregiver Action Network (202) 454-3970
- Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (229) 928-1234
- Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support Program (855) 260-3274
- Well Spouse Association (1-800) 838-0879
Additionally, the greatest source of hope and healing is the love of family and friends. Keep your community updated and informed on your health journey with a CaringBridge website.
Caregiver burnout quiz
Gaining an awareness of how you’re doing is the first step to feeling better. This straightforward caregiver burnout quiz will help you understand if symptoms indicate burnout.
Share your self-care tips with the CaringBridge community
We want your advice! How have you managed the emotional and physical tolls of caregiving? Please comment below and help thousands of our readers avoid or recover from caregiver burnout.