Being a caregiver for someone you know and love can be gratifying but also exhausting and frustrating. In some cases, it may lead to symptoms of burnout. Asking for help, getting frequent breaks, and following a balanced diet may help.
A caregiver helps another person with their medical and personal needs. Unlike a paid healthcare worker, a caregiver may have a significant personal relationship with the person in need.
Usually, the person being cared for is a family member or friend who’s chronically ill, has a disabling condition, or is an older adult who can’t care for themselves.
A caregiver may help with daily activities, such as:
- preparing meals
- running errands
- performing medical tasks, such as setting up tube feedings and giving medications
Being a caregiver is often emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. It tends to limit your social life and can cause financial problems.
Caregiver burnout occurs when stress becomes overwhelming, negatively affecting your life and health.
Burnout refers to becoming physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted from the stress that comes from caring for a loved one who’s not well. You may feel alone, unsupported, or unappreciated.
In some cases, it’s possible that you may neglect taking good care of yourself and experience depression. Eventually, you may lose interest in caring for yourself and the person you look after.
Almost every caregiver experiences burnout at some point. If it does happen and it’s not addressed, you may not be able to continue providing care eventually. For this reason, caregiver burnout is something to address.
Early signs of burnout are possible. Being aware of them helps you know when to take steps to manage or prevent the stress you’re experiencing.
General signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout may include:
- feeling anxious
- avoiding people
- feeling depression
- feeling exhausted
- feeling you’re losing control of your life
- being irritable
- having a lack of energy
- losing interest in the things you like to do
- neglecting your needs and health
When it happens, caregiver burnout has physical and emotional signs and symptoms. Physical signs and symptoms may include:
- body aches and pains
- frequent headaches
- increased or decreased appetite
- unusual changes in weight
- weakened immune system, leading to frequent infections
The emotional signs and symptoms are less easily recognizable, and you may not notice them. Some of these are:
- feeling anxious
- becoming angry and argumentative
- becoming irritated easily and often
- constantly worrying
- experiencing depressed mood
- feeling hopeless
- feeling impatient
- not being able to concentrate
- isolating yourself emotionally and physically
- lacking interest in things that used to make you happy
- lacking motivation
As burnout progresses and depression and anxiety increase, some caregivers may start using alcohol or other substances, especially stimulants, to try to relieve the symptoms.
Burnout may lead to impairment, increasing the risk of harm to the care recipient.
It’s essential to be aware of the early signs of caregiver burnout. You can do multiple things to take care of yourself, stay healthy, and prevent burnout.
- Ask others for help: Remember that you don’t have to do everything. It’s OK to ask friends and family to do some of your caretaking tasks.
- Get support: Talking about what you’re going through and getting support from family and friends or a support group helps you process your feelings and emotions. Holding everything in can lead to chronic stress and mood changes, and contribute to feeling overwhelmed. Consider seeking professional counseling, if necessary.
- Be honest with yourself: Know what you can and can’t do. Do the tasks that you can, and delegate the rest to others. Say no when you think a task will be too stressful or you don’t have time to do it.
- Talk with other caregivers: This helps you get support and allows you to give support and encouragement to others going through something similar.
- Take regular breaks: Breaks help relieve some of your stress and restore your energy. Use the time to do the things that relax you and improve your mood. Even 10-minute breaks can help.
- Attend social activities: Meeting with friends, continuing your hobbies, and doing things you enjoy are important to maintain your mood and avoid isolating yourself. The activity should be something that gets you away from the daily routine and setting of caregiving.
- Pay attention to your feelings and needs: It’s easy to forget to take care of your needs when you’re a caregiver, but it’s essential that you connect with yourself.
- Take care of your health: Keep your regular doctor appointments, including for preventive care, take your medications, and see your doctor when you feel sick.
- Eat a healthy diet: Eating nutrient-dense meals keeps you healthy and improves energy and stamina.
- Exercise: Exercising is a great way to relieve stress, increase energy, and take time for yourself. It can also improve depression.
- Maintain your sleep schedule: Getting enough rest is important for your well-being and for maintaining your stamina.
- Take family leave: If you work, consider using family leave benefits available to you. Removing the stress of work can reduce your responsibilities and free up more time for yourself.
- Consider respite care: When you need a break, using respite care for a few hours to a few weeks is an option in most places. When you need a few hours or a day for yourself, in-home services, such as a home health aide or an adult day center, can take care of your loved one. A residential care facility provides overnight care if you need a longer break. The drawback is that you pay a fee for these services that usually isn’t covered by Medicare or insurance.
Maintaining a healthy mind, body, and spirit is essential for the well-being of both you and your loved one. Having a caregiver toolkit can help keep you balanced and organized. It’s also a resource you can use if you experience burnout warning signs.
Many resources are available to help you care for your loved one. Most caregivers have no training on what to do for a specific condition, so finding helpful resources may help.
Some resources are listed below:
- Alzheimer’s Association provides insight into Alzheimer’s disease and other types of cognitive decline conditions.
American Cancer Societyhas information for people caring for loved ones with cancer. American Heart Associationhas resources for people caring for those with heart disease.
- The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services lists national and local resources for caregivers.
- U.S. Dept. of Labor Disability Resources has resources on disability benefits.
National Institute on Aginghas information and resources on health and aging. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)lists information on mental health issues.
- National Library of Medicine has a variety of medical databases and research information.
- National Resource Directory provides information on caring for service members and veterans.
- Social Security Administration provides help for Medicare and social security issues.
- Caregiver Action Network: Agencies and Organizations lists websites related to specific diseases.
These resources may help you take care of yourself:
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Caregiver Resources includes services provided at NIH clinics and links to a variety of websites you can use to find information on most caregiver health and support topics. You can find government and local programs, services, and resources for caregivers. It also has links to helpful blogs, workshops, podcasts, and videos.
- The Family Caregiver Alliance has a lot of information on providing care for your loved one and yourself. It’s full of links to resources for most caregiver needs, questions, and concerns.
- The Family Caregiver Toolbox from the Caregiver Action Network provides a number of good tips and resources.
Your doctor or mental health provider can diagnose caregiver burnout. You can also take self-assessment tests to determine whether you have burnout.
Your doctor or healthcare professional will make the diagnosis by talking with you about what you’ve been doing and how you’re feeling. They’ll want to know how well you’re taking care of yourself and whether you’re taking enough breaks from the stress of caregiving.
They may give you questionnaires for depression or stress, but there are no blood or imaging tests that help make the diagnosis.
If you go to a regular appointment, consider telling your medical professional that you’re caring for a loved one so they can watch for signs of burnout.
While burnout occurs over time as a caregiver feels overwhelmed by the stress of caring for a loved one, compassion fatigue happens suddenly. It’s a decrease in the ability to empathize and have compassion for others, including those you care for.
Fatigue may result from the extreme stress that comes with empathizing with the traumatic experiences of the people you care for. It’s mainly been studied in healthcare workers, but it may also happen to family caregivers.
Some of the signs are:
- anxiety and irrational fears
- difficulty making decisions
- increased use of drugs and alcohol
- lack of concentration
Compassion fatigue usually gets better quickly once it’s identified and dealt with through self-reflection and lifestyle changes. If you think you are experiencing fatigue, you may want to chat with doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible.
Burnout and depression are similar but separate conditions. They may have many of the same symptoms, such as fatigue, anxiety, and sadness, but there are some differences, too. These include:
- Cause: Depression is a disorder of your mood or state of mind. Burnout is a reaction to exposure to severe stress in your environment.
- How you feel: When you have depression, you may feel like life has lost its happiness. With burnout, you feel like all of your energy has been used up.
- Effect of removing stress: If getting away from caregiving and stress for a while doesn’t improve your symptoms, depression is more likely. If your symptoms improve with time away, you most likely have burnout.
- Treatment: Depression usually gets better with medication and sometimes psychotherapy. Burnout usually gets better by getting away from the stress of caretaking and focusing on your own health and needs.
Caregiver burnout may happen when chronic stress related to caring for a loved one becomes overwhelming. This may cause a decline in your mental and physical health. Burnout is common in caregivers — you didn’t do anything to cause it.
The most important thing is to know how to identify early signs. A health professional can help you develop coping skills to manage how you feel and work on your own health and well-being.