Lexington Health Network

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Caregiver Support: Why Self-Care Matters

When you make that commitment to care for a loved one, it’s easy to lose sight of your own well-being. Self-care for caregivers, however, is not a luxury. Neglecting your needs often results in stress and, eventually, burnout.

Signs of Caregiver Stress

It is important to learn the signs of caregiver stress. If you can recognize these signs, you can take steps to relieve the stress and prevent burnout. Caregiver stress can cause a variety of symptoms, such as the following.

Anxiety

You may wonder if you will be able to adequately care for your loved one. Caregivers have many types of responsibilities, from dispensing medications to handling a loved one’s finances. It’s understandable if you feel as though you don’t have the time, resources or skills to carry out these responsibilities.

Feeling Overwhelmed

Caregivers usually sacrifice their plans in order to care for loved ones. You may find yourself irritable or overwhelmed. No matter how much you love them, it is common to feel impatient at times.

Sleep Problems

Worries often surface when you’re trying to fall asleep. Will your loved one fall during the night? Can you get time off from work to go to that appointment? Are you changing the bandage correctly? Sleep problems can set the stage for exhaustion the following day.

If you ignore these symptoms of caregiver stress, they may progress to new or worsening health problems. Caregivers report that they are likely to ignore their own health needs, such as seeing their doctor. It’s no wonder then that caregivers are more likely to have higher cholesterol and blood pressure than non-caregivers.

Signs of Caregiver Burnout

Caregiver burnout is a result of continuous, unmanaged stress. Prolonged stress causes the body to produce hormones that lead to symptoms of burnout, including:

  • Feeling exhausted, even after resting or sleeping
  • Weakened immune system
  • Digestive problems and weight gain
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Feeling increasingly irritable toward care recipient
  • Neglecting responsibilities, including your own needs
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless

These symptoms can be the result of unrealistic expectations and demands. For example, a caregiver may try to control things that they cannot control. These expectations lead to exhaustion, feelings of failure and, eventually, burnout.

Self-Care for Caregivers 

Caregivers can learn to manage stress before it turns into burnout. Communication and rest are examples of stress management techniques for caregivers.

Communicate Your Needs

For a caregiver, self-care can start with communication. Learn to be proactive in communicating your need for help. Your friends and family may not be aware of your needs unless you are upfront with them. Be specific when asking for help instead of just saying, “I need help with Dad.” For example, prepare a list of tasks and let family members choose what they would like to do. One person could pick up groceries while someone else fills out insurance paperwork.

Similarly, if you need to take a break and get out of the house, make plans for a certain date and time. You could tell a friend, “I’d like to attend a concert for a couple of hours Friday evening. Could you sit with my mom then?”

When communicating your needs, it is helpful to avoid always asking the same person. Some are better than others to ask for help. For example, it is best to avoid asking someone to run an errand when they are tired or stressed. Consider waiting for a better time or asking someone else. On the other hand, learn to accept help when it is offered. Avoid the trap of not wanting to “bother” anyone and let people help you.

Get Enough Sleep and Nutrition

Caregivers often put their own health on the back burner. When faced with doctor appointments, errands and unexpected crises, it seems easier to grab a doughnut for lunch. Worries — whether health, financial or other matters — can keep you tossing and turning at night. Proper nutrition and rest, however, are important ingredients in preventing caregiver burnout.

When combating caregiver stress, eat a diet rich in whole, nutritious foods. Avoid processed foods and refined sugar, as they lead to inflammation and increase the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Stress itself can result in inflammation, so it’s important to give your body a fighting chance with a healthy diet. Include fruits and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats such as olive oil.

Getting enough sleep is often a matter of quieting the mind and body at bedtime. Even the busiest caregiver can set a 10-minute relaxation routine. Try including mindful breathing exercises in your nighttime routine. Breathing exercises can trigger the body’s relaxation response, which counteracts stress. Find a comfortable place to sit and close your eyes. Focus on your breath and inhale for five counts. Hold your breath for five counts and then exhale for another five counts.

Talk to Your Doctor

When you feel pressed for time, it’s tempting to cancel important commitments such as your own doctor appointments. Caregivers may even feel selfish for taking care of their own health. However, you must take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Besides, you deserve to be healthy for your own quality of life.

Do Things You Enjoy

You may think you don’t have time to take a break. If you don’t rest and recharge, however, you’ll be exhausted and less productive. You deserve some time to yourself, and your loved one deserves to see you at your best. Watch a movie, visit an art gallery or spend time in nature — whatever brings you joy.

Stay Connected

Caregiving can result in feelings of isolation, which can lead to depression and burnout. Whether it’s a virtual caregiver support group, church activities or walks with a friend, social connection is vitally important. Sharing your feelings will help you stay healthy and will strengthen your friendships.

Self-Care: A Priority for Caregivers

Self-care is important for caregivers and their loved ones. When you feel rested and healthy, you will have more focus and more patience. It’s never selfish to take care of your well-being.