5 Signs of Caregiver Burnout and How to Fix It

Providing care for someone you love is one of the greatest gifts you can give them, and yourselves. The rewards are often not tangible, but deeply felt. It is a true blessing to be able to help someone else who is not able to provide for their own care by ascertaining that their daily needs are met. Often, you are the one who makes sure they are fed, bathed, and dressed. You are the one who provides companionship, soothes their anxieties, and eases their discomfort. You are the anchor that holds the household together. The responsibility can become overwhelming, however, and too often caregivers put their own wellbeing on a back burner. The impacts can be minor at first. Not even noticeable. Just little things. As a caregiver, when do you know that your own health is becoming seriously compromised? Read on for five signs of caregiver burnout and how to fix it.

1. Apathy and Depression

Apathy is one indication of depression. Caregivers may begin showing signs of dispiritedness, and indifference. This could be reflected in irregular sleeping habits, neglect of personal hygiene, and general lack of contentment in daily routines. Apathy and depression go hand-in-hand and can lead to greater complications, including:

  • Complete detachment or withdrawal from other family members, and friends. Burnout can lead to a lack of enjoyment of once, enjoyable activities and outings with others. Isolation leads to further downheartedness.
  • Irregular eating habits which could lead to weight gain or loss. Instead of focusing on healthy food, some caregivers resort to drinking large amounts of caffeine, or smoking cigarettes to get through the day. 
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns which may contribute to caregivers turning to medication, or alcohol, in an effort to fall asleep at night.

The first thing to do, to get back on track, is check in with your family physician. Depression does not get better without help, and once your doctor understands that you are a caregiver, they will be able to provide you with medical support if needed. Depression is a treatable condition, and once this serious condition is addressed, it is much simpler to restore a healthy mental and physical outlook. 

Anyone with hands-on responsibility for an aging loved one needs a break occasionally, if not regularly. We help families like yours to the right type of care and find the best possible caregiver for your needs. Our highly qualified and compassionate care coordinators can help make the decision easier and answer any questions you have regarding your unique situation.

2. Stress Overload

Caregiver responsibilities may involve many external stress triggers, such as major life changes and financial conditions, as well as, internal triggers, such as chronic worry, that continually produce anxiety. Continuing stress triggers the body’s nervous system, with the result that an outpouring, of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, is released into the body causing your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure to increase. Stress can help someone to remain alert, and focused. Long term stress overload, however, is dangerous. Some complications of stress overload, include:

  • Hypertension, or high blood pressure, which can damage your arteries, heart, brain, or kidneys
  • A suppressed immune system which causes caregivers to be vulnerable to viruses, and other infections. Caregivers experiencing burnout may find they get sick more often, and take longer to recover

There are many defenses against stress overload. Social engagement with others that provides reliable and positive human interaction is one of the greatest defenses. Stress can be relieved by calling on family, friends, or neighbours when you need help. Other verified methods of stress relief, include:

  • Exercise; a formidable defence against stress. Consistent exercise will, not only alleviate anxiety, but will enhance your mood, and energy levels.
  • A healthy diet can actually raise or lower the levels of hormones that impact stress. High fiber diets, and foods rich in carbohydrates are recommended. Fruits and vegetables, which are high in antitoxins enhance the immune system’s ability to fight off disease.
  • Meditation has been effectively used to calm, and center, overstressed individuals. The relaxation practice takes only minutes, but eases stress overload, and provides an emotional lift. 

3. Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts are not unusual with caretaker burnout. Many times, caretaking responsibilities continue for years, or even decades. Intrusive thoughts, are those that can suddenly pop into your head unexpectedly, and consistently reoccur. Caretakers may be plagued with intrusive thoughts that include harming their charge, or wishing they would die. Intrusive thoughts should be considered an important warning sign of burnout, and caretakers should immediately seek help from a physician. Counseling and medication can provide significant relief to the daily anxiety caretakers take on. Other suggestions for battling intrusive thoughts, include:

  • Making time for yourself. This could include hiring in-home help, or asking a family member or friend to assist you. 
  • Joining a caregiver support group allows you to talk about your feelings and experiences with others who can relate. 

4. Emotional Extremes

Many caregivers describe their life as an emotional rollercoaster. Emotions run the entire gamut of anger, resentment, guilt, and sadness during the day. Caretakers are often reluctant to acknowledge that they have strong negative feelings, along with positive feelings, during the course of caring for their charges. Moodiness, or mood swings, are another indication of caretaker burnout. Emotional extremes can be overwhelming and impact the caregiver’s ability to cope with their responsibilities. The Mayo Clinic provides the following tips for managing emotional extremes:

  • Communicate with your physician
  • Seek out community resources and ask for help
  • Join a support group for validation and reinforcement
  • Connect with family and friends
  • Establish a healthy routine for yourself
  • Be realistic and accept your own limitations

5. Alcohol or Drug Abuse

Caregiver burnout can include excessive use of medications, alcohol, or sleeping pills. Caretakers may experience anxiety on a consistent basis, because of health situations and everyday thoughts. Relief from stress, or a good night’s sleep, becomes a highly desirable goal. Alcohol is extremely accessible, and though an unhealthy alternative, it releases the anxiety and creates euphoric feelings for the short term. Prescription medications can be a blessing when taken under the guidance of a physician, but caregivers may decide to self-medicate; a dangerous practice. Caretakers experiencing a level of burnout that has increased their alcohol or drug use should seek medical help. Drugs and alcohol, not only impact the user’s health and wellbeing, but also may cause significant impairment to their caretaking abilities. 

Caregivers don’t always realize that they have reached a dangerous burnout stage. Many times, it is the people close to us that let us know that there is something to be concerned about. Two things we do know: burnout never feels good, and burnout always makes us feel out of control. Burnout requires us to take action, whether medical, or in lifestyle changes. Most caretakers find their job worth it. A John Hopkins School of Public Health study found that most caretakers discover a “heightened appreciation of life, find hidden strengths, and felt a sense of accomplishment.” We can’t take care of others, if we don’t first, take care of ourselves. 

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