Caregiver burnout is one of the most challenging aspects of becoming a caregiver. People who are caregivers want to help others. When they assume this role they may neglect their own needs at great personal cost. Feelings of helplessness, anger, sadness, and fatigue can emerge. Caregivers can help alleviate these emotions and prevent caregiver burnout by creating realistic expectations for themselves. Working with a therapist can help caregivers to understand ways to break this cycle.
What Is Caregiver Burnout?
Caregiver burnout is a feeling of being overwhelmed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually when taking care of someone with major health issues. It occurs when people experience an extended period of stress associated with their role as a caregiver. They may not be aware it is happening because they are focused on the person they are taking care of rather than themselves.
People who experience caregiver burnout often feel that they are being pulled in many directions. They are exhausted. This can cause feelings of dissatisfaction with themselves, their relationships, and their ability to complete necessary daily tasks. This can result in feeling immobilized and helpless.
There is a very strong connection between our mental, physical, and emotional health. When mental or emotional health is compromised it can jeopardize physical wellbeing. Your medical health and wellbeing may be negatively impacted if this problem is not promptly addressed.
What Is the Difference Between Caregiver Burnout and Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue involves a strain of feeling for someone else’s pain.1 It results from extended exposure to working with people who are in crisis. People begin to feel and empathize with the pain of those they are helping.
Examples of people who are at risk for compassion fatigue include first responders, doctors, and those who serve in the military. They are repeatedly confronted with traumatic situations and the emotional distance between themselves and those they help grows smaller.
The symptoms occurring with compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout can be similar. Examples include stress, helplessness, and depression. However, unlike compassion fatigue, caregiver burnout has no relationship to ongoing, repeated trauma.
What Is the Difference Between Caregiver Burnout and Depression?
One of the symptoms of caregiver burnout may be depression. Depression is a mood disorder. It is a change in your state of mind. It can be caused by genetics, hormones, or a chemical imbalance. It can also result from a traumatic situation or a sudden loss or life crisis.
Caregiver burnout primarily stems from the stress related to caregiving. If the stress is removed the feelings related to burnout usually will lessen. Depression and burnout can share some symptoms. Anxiety, sadness, and fatigue are examples of these similar symptoms as well as a general sense of feeling overwhelmed.
What Causes Caregiver Burnout?
Caregiver burnout occurs because caregivers are focused on taking care of others. They do not pay attention to what is happening to themselves along the way. They are unaware of or ignore negative changes in their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. This dynamic extending over time paired up with unrealistic caregiver self expectations often ends with caregiver burnout.
Johns Hopkins Medical Center describes the common causes of caregiver burnout:
- Emotional demands resulting from the care receivers’ condition: An extreme degree of physical and emotional care is needed. There is no way to make your loved one “well.”
- Conflicting demands: Trying to meet the needs of spouses, children, employers, and co-workers creates conflict and stress.
- Ambiguity of roles: Sometimes caregivers do not know exactly what their roles and responsibilities are in relation to those around them.
- Workload: There is too much to do.
- Conflicting policies and procedures: Prevents professional caregivers from doing what they believe is appropriate and family caregivers receiving what they want and need.
- Lack of privacy: There is no time to be alone.2
Signs of Caregiver Burnout
Caregivers who try to manage all aspects of care for a loved one are most at risk to experience caregiver burnout. The critical symptom alerting caregivers that they may be experiencing burnout is ongoing feelings of exhaustion and stress. Exhaustion is a trigger for many of the major symptoms that evolve from burnout.
Common signs of caregiver burnout include:
- Social Isolation
- Depressed Mood
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Angry outbursts, loss of temper
- Feelings of helplessness
- Feelings of loss of control
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Onset of medical issues such as stomach/digestive problems, body aches, headaches
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Increased anxiety
- Loss or negative changes in relationships
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Revenge bedtime procrastination
- Changes in sleep patterns
When to Get Professional Help for Caregiver Burnout
Does your role as a caregiver negatively impact other areas of your life? Do you regularly feel overwhelmed and exhausted? Have the meaningful relationships you have become compromised because of caregiver stress? Carefully examine your level of satisfaction with how you are meeting daily demands, relationships, and responsibilities. If these scenarios describe your experience seek professional counseling. Many caregivers are reluctant to ask for help of any kind, especially therapy. This level of dysfunction makes it extremely challenging for caregivers to do what they need to get you back to where they want to be without professional help. You know yourself best – if you’re wondering if it’s time to start therapy, it probably is.
The key to the preventing burnout is not to wait till you find yourself incapacitated. Be proactive and aware in terms of monitoring yourself and how you feel and function. Self-awareness is imperative. It will make you a better caregiver. If caregiver burnout symptoms begin to appear take action immediately. Identify the stressor and implement actions to alleviate the stress. It may mean asking for support in your caregiver role. If you are successful in meeting these goals no additional counseling is indicated.
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Who Can Help With Caregiver Burnout?
The most successful caregivers recognize that they cannot do it all alone. They spend time building a support network so if help is needed they don’t have to react in crisis mode. There are many respite care options available to you when you do seek hands-on caregiving help. Start with family members, neighbors, and friends. Places of worship have volunteers. Identify skill sets and people able and willing to help. Investigate in-home health care agencies, adult day care, and senior care programs. These are rich resources for local information.
While it is possible to prevent emotional burnout, caregivers may likely need support to overcome stress and burnout. Caregiver support groups, chat rooms, and caregiver blogs are important resources. Many people take comfort in talking with others who are in a similar situation. It helps normalize your feelings and makes you feel less alone. Valuable insights and tips can be gained by these connections and relationships. Many caregiver organizations offer websites with excellent information. It is also great to go to a trusted friend or family member that you can speak candidly to about what you are experiencing.
Another excellent resource is reaching out to a family counselor or therapist. Their guidance can be crucial in helping you find ways to take care of yourself as you care for others. The American Psychological Association recommends “you ask whether the therapist has had experience dealing with your concerns. Some therapists specialize in working with children, families, adults, or older adults.” 3 Learn more about choosing a therapist here. You can also check out our directory to find a therapist.
12 Ways to Cope With Caregiver Burnout
The good news for caregivers who experience burnout is that there are many options available to help you cope if help is needed. The most important step is to acknowledge that you need help and then be willing to ask for it. If you help yourself reduce stress and recover from burnout, it will make you a better caregiver. Caregiving can bring a new intimacy, and strength to a relationship with a loved one. The end result can be positive for all concerned.
Stabilizing your emotions and overall health should be your goal. It can ultimately enrich your experience as a caregiver. Getting this additional support can enhance your relationship with the person you are caring for as well as other meaningful relationships in your life.
Here are some key ways to cope when experiencing caregiver burnout:
- Set realistic expectations for yourself.
- Focus on what you can control rather than being frustrated about what you can’t control.
- Allow yourself time off to recharge, relax, and focus on yourself without feeling guilty.
- Allow yourself to feel good about the small victories and positive moments that come from your role as a caregiver.
- Do something daily to preserve your health like exercise, enough sleep, a jog or walk, eat well, meditation, and drink plenty of water.
- Pay ongoing attention to your body, your mental, emotional, and spiritual well being. If it appears off balance in any way take immediate action.
- Consult a therapist for one on one, family, or group therapy as needed.
- Investigate online caregiver support communities.
- Get Connected-Find out about caregiving sources in your community.4
- See your doctor-Get recommended vaccinations and screenings.4
- Use respite care-taking a break can be one of the best things you do for yourself.4
- Seek social support -stay well connected with non-judgmental family and friends.4
How to Support a Loved One Who is a Caregiver Experiencing Burnout
It is difficult to watch someone you care about become overwhelmed and incapacitated in their caregiver role. There are many things that you can do to help. Something that appears simple but is quite significant is to be able to listen. Just having someone you trust who takes the time to focus on you means a lot. Let them know their efforts are appreciated.
Asking caregivers what you can do to help also is extremely important. It can help them identify tasks that can be done to help alleviate their stress. The gift of your time is priceless to a caregiver. Encourage the caregiver to use time for themselves.
Educating yourself about the medical condition of the person being cared for can be helpful. It will help you understand if the caregiver’s expectations and efforts are realistic. You can use this information to help them prepare for what is to come or what more is needed. Caregivers often feel alone or abandoned. Your promise to check in and stay in contact in designated ways and times can be a lifeline to a caregiver.
If you are able to gather caregiver support resources and information that may be of use to the caregiver. Ask if you can share this with them. If they are not ready to receive the information at that moment hang onto it. It may be welcomed at a future date.
It is common for caregivers to have conflicts with family or friends who disagree with how they are doing their caregiving. It can result in angry, stressful moments. Relationships can be severely damaged. Do not make judgmental statements. Try not to criticize the caregivers efforts. If you are unable or unwilling to offer any hands-on care don’t offer to help in ways you can’t. It will cause additional resentment and divisiveness if you do not follow through with expected promises to help the caregiver. Perhaps you can assist in other ways for example like financial support or bringing meals.
For Further Reading
- Family Caregiver Alliance: Provides education, public policy information, caregiver support programs, and connects caregivers.
- They also offer a site called Family Care Navigator. It is state-by-state information on services for people living at home, needing new living arrangements, legal help, and information on government health and disability programs.
- Caregiver Action Network: Their mission is to offer medical information and support to caregivers working with people with a variety of serious medical conditions. They offer education, practical local information, and resources. They also help reduce emotional and financial stress of caregivers.
- National Alliance for Caregiving: They provide information on caregiver policy, advocacy, research, resources, and a caregiver toolkit.
- Caregiver Action Network: They connect caregivers, caregivers share their stories, caregiver videos, caregiver toolkits, and multiple resources.
- Best Books on Burnout & Recovery