Caregiver Stress Management

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Caregiving is a labor of love.

Many nurses describe the path to their career as a “calling.” They have a deep desire to take care of those around them, to leave folks better off than they found them. Caregiving has a similar path, although often people who find themselves in a caregiver role may describe it as more of a duty than a calling.

Stepping up and filling a role can produce a powerful emotional response in an individual. When one does something that nobody else can or will do, it feels good, especially if people around them recognize the sacrifice that’s being made.

Taking care of a loved one living with the long-term effects of a stroke can often feel like the ultimate duty or strongest expression of love language one has. There are many reasons one may feel a strong duty to care for someone:

  • We take care of our aging parents to show them how grateful we are for the sacrifices they made for us early in our lives.
  • We take care of our spouses and partners to show them how seriously we take our vows and commitments to them.
  • We take care of our friends to show them how much we value their presence in our lives.

Chances are if you have found this article you know exactly why you take care of your loved one. The point of this article is to talk about what people are often afraid to admit about caregiving.

Caregiving has a dark side.

Yes, caregiving is a beautiful expression of love, but there is a flipside to that coin. Caregiving carries a heavy burden, and folks who act as a caregiver are highly susceptible to a slew of psychological issues if left unchecked.

Caregiving is often draining physically and emotionally, and it can feel thankless at times. A former manager of mine once said that if the service at a restaurant is really good, it goes unnoticed, and caregiving is similar. A caregiver can do such a great job that everyone around them doesn’t even notice the person being cared for has any deficits at all. While this seems like the pinnacle of caregiving, it leads to a lack of recognition and potentially, burnout.

Caregiver.com describes Caregiver Stress Syndrome as a “condition characterized by physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.” Often when one is a caregiver, the needs of the person being cared for supersede everything else. The sacrifice that at first felt selfless and beautiful can turn toxic and harmful.

Signs a caregiver needs a break:

When I am caring for stroke patients in the ICU, I often have to remind myself that these people have injured brains, and that the way they are acting is not a true expression of their personality. Caring for a stroke survivor can be especially challenging because in addition to physical disabilities, there are mental disabilities with which to contend. The stress caused by caring for a loved one can lead to depression, anxiety, and many other mental health problems. This is an issue not only for the caregiver, but also for the cared-for stroke survivor

When I am at the hospital encouraging family members to take a break and go home, I often say, “You can’t take care of anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first.” Nobody wins if the caregiver is depressed, anxious, or burned out.

So how does one know if they are dealing with Caregiver Stress Syndrome? Here are some signs:

  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Misusing drugs and alcohol
  • Feeling sad, isolated, hopeless, or overwhelmed
  • Frequent inexplicable aches and pains
  • Unexpected and frequent irritability
  • Missing your own appointments or meet-ups with friends

What to do if you’re feeling burned out as a caregiver:

You’ve identified that you’re feeling burned out as a caregiver. Now what?

The first and most important step is to give yourself a break and let yourself off the hook. Know that you are doing the best you can with the circumstances you’ve been handed.

Next, identify your support network and reach out to them. Something as simple as a quick phone call or text conversation can do wonders for morale. If you don’t have a support network, find one. Stroke Support Association is a great place to start to find what resources are available to you. Reaching out to a support group fosters a sense of community and provides a link to other people dealing with similar situations. There are virtual and in-person support groups where you can hear other people’s stories and find out what creative solutions they have found to help them deal with the stress of caregiving. It might be enough just to know that you aren’t alone, and that other people are dealing with the same difficulties.

Once you have established a support network, it may be easier to try the following caregiver stress management techniques:

  • Do something for yourself that you enjoy, perhaps re-engaging in a hobby that you enjoyed before your loved one had a stroke.
  • Try and lighten your load. Maybe there are fellow caregivers that you can exchange tasks with, such as cooking, transportation, or daycare.
  • Talk to your employer about resources they may have available within the company or take family medical leave.
  • Take care of yourself, get lots of sleep, and stay hydrated. Maybe get a massage or take yourself out for a meal.
  • Most importantly, ask for help. This can be one of the most challenging things a caregiver can do because they are used to doing everything themselves. But caregiving can be a team effort, and knowing that will keep you and your loved one as safe and healthy as possible.

Written by Laura Tsim, BA BSN RN CCRN

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