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Recognizing & Avoiding Caregiver Burnout


Caregiving is rewarding work, but it can also be physically and emotionally challenging. Like all professions, caregivers also have other life pressures and responsibilities. Caregivers can be so busy caring for others that they may often neglect their own emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health. All of this adds up to a lot of stress on one person.

Not all stress is bad. Stress is a normal part of everyday life. Usual amounts of stress keep you alert and motivate you to take action. However, too much stress for long periods of time is hard on your body, mind, and spirit. When you are under a lot of stress, your body goes on high alert. Essential body functions, like respiration and heart rate, speed up. Less urgent functions, such as the immune system, become vulnerable. This puts you at greater risk for infections, certain diseases, depression, or anxiety.

Too much stress for too long can cause burnout. Caregivers who are burned out feel like they have “nothing left.” Beyond the physical exhaustion, there is often a loss of hope, purpose, and meaning. SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF STRESS/BURNOUT Stress and burnout can affect your body, emotions, mind, and behavior. Stay alert to the following common warning signs. If you experience these symptoms, you may be under too much stress and be at risk of burning out. Physical Signs:

  • Headache

  • Muscle tension or pain

  • Chest pain

  • Fatigue

  • Change in sex drive

  • Stomach upset

  • Sleep problems

Emotional Signs:

  • Anxiety

  • Restlessness

  • Lack of motivation or focus

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Irritability or anger

  • Sadness or depression

  • Panic

Behavioral Signs:

  • Overeating or undereating

  • Angry outbursts

  • Drug or alcohol misuse

  • Tobacco use

  • Social withdrawal

  • Exercising less often

  • Problems with relationships

CAUSES OF STRESS Causes of stress, or stressors, affect everyone differently. A situation or event that causes one person to become overstressed might not be a problem for someone else. Everyday life contributes to our stress levels. Work, parenting, and financial issues are all common stressors. Stress also comes from major life events such as marriage or divorce, a birth or death in the family, leaving a job, or starting a new one. Other causes of stress include:

  • Family issues

  • Concern for personal health/illness

  • Concern for health/illness of others

  • Bullying or harassment

  • Death of someone close to you

  • Trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle

  • Issues in the workplace

  • Losing your job or feeling insecure about employment

Identifying the causes of your stress can give you some control and help you feel better.

Compassion Fatigue Compassion fatigue (also known as secondary trauma) is the emotional, physical and spiritual distress that may result from providing care to others who are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering. Compassion fatigue may increase chronic stress and shares many of the symptoms of burnout. It can lead to exhaustion both mentally and physically.

Problems in the Workplace Serious problems in the workplace, such as discrimination, harassment, and abusive conduct can create an unsafe and unhealthy environment. You have the right to be free of discrimination, harassment, and abuse at work.

Negative Thinking Stress can also be caused by our own thoughts and feelings. The following are some examples of negative thinking.

  • “Everything is out of my control.”

  • “I am helpless to change the situation.”

  • “I am not doing enough.”

  • “I am not doing a good job.”

  • “I cannot do this anymore.”

PRACTICING SELF CARE Self-care helps you cope with stress and avoid burnout. Similar to filling a car with gas before it is empty and stops working, self-care can refuel the body, mind, and spirit. Good self-care for caregivers includes the following.

  • Recognize and reduce stress in your life.

  • Set boundaries.

  • Find positive outlets for your emotions.

  • Learn to relax.

  • Make healthy nutrition choices.

  • Drink enough water to stay hydrated.

  • Get enough sleep and physical activity.

Tips for Making Positive Behavior Changes Making positive lifestyle changes can be a challenge. Habits take time and effort to change. It helps to feel confident in your ability to change and see the importance and benefit to you and/or your loved ones. Here are some important tips for making positive changes in your life.

  • Be Honest with Yourself about your Capabilities and Goals Set specific, realistic short-term and long-term goals. Focus on small changes and start slowly. You are more likely to succeed if you take one small step at a time. Setting unrealistic goals or too many changes at once often leads to feelings of frustration or defeat and may cause you to give up.

  • Get Help Create a support system. Looking for and accepting help is one of the best tools you have in making a successful change. Find people who will encourage and support you in sticking with your goals. Talking with a person who has already been through what you are experiencing may be helpful. Don’t assume others can read your mind and know what you need. Be specific and ask for what you want. If that person can’t give it to you, find someone who can! Seek help from a licensed therapist or other professionals as needed.

  • Reward Yourself Create your own reward system and give yourself encouragement along the way. Celebrate every success, no matter how small. Avoid rewards like food and buying things. Instead, treat yourself with a nap, your favorite music, or spending time on a favorite hobby. Be patient - don’t expect immediate results. Feel good about the steps you are making and do your best to stay positive. If you slip and go back to old behaviors, don’t give up. It can take months to form new habits. Give yourself grace and keep trying.

  • Setting Boundaries Your time and energy are limited resources. One of the first actions you can do to reduce stress and prevent burnout is to recognize you have the right to meet your own needs and set realistic boundaries to what you can and can’t do for others. To set boundaries, you must first be realistic with yourself about what you can and can’t do. Work on taking extra time to think about what you are being asked to do rather than automatically saying “yes.” When you want to say “no”:

Use the word “no” when telling another person you can’t or won’t do something.

Use “I” statements without making excuses. No excuses are necessary. You have a basic right to say “no.”

Explaining why you said “no” isn’t necessary, but if you feel the need to explain, be brief. Long explanations are not needed and tend to sound like excuses.

Make sure your body language matches what you are saying. Often people unknowingly nod their heads and smile when saying “no.”

Plan ahead. If you know someone is going to ask you, plan what you will say in advance.

You may have to say “no” several times before the person hears you. Just repeat your “no” calmly.

Offer alternatives if they exist and are within your boundaries. “I am unable to do what you have asked, but I can do...”

  • Activities that Replenish Your Mind, Body, and Spirit The following are some good ways to relax, de-stress, and refuel your mind, body, and spirit.

  • Walking

  • Spending time outdoors

  • Taking a nap

  • Gardening

  • Reading or listening to a book

  • Spending time with friends

  • Listening to music

  • Meditation

  • Doing yoga

  • Visualizing a comforting scene

  • Laughter

  • Journaling

Find what works for you. Staying socially connected and involved with activities and people that bring you pleasure is essential for good self- care. Establish a routine and schedule times for activities each week. Caregiving can be a rewarding way to make a living. However, it's a demanding job and can be stressful. Make sure you're taking care of yourself by following the tips above. This can help you avoid burnout.


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