And we’re not alone. More than 53 million individuals in the United States care for a family member or friend. These family caregivers are often learning on the job and pushing through with sheer will and determination.
According to The Caregiving Years Training Academy, family caregivers rate their stress as 4.14 on a scale of 1 to 5, with five being the most stressed. Our stress is as chronic, impulsive, and stubborn as our care recipient’s disease and treatment.
As family caregivers, we also experience stress in maintaining our own lives. We may juggle many responsibilities, including our careers, relationships, health, and personal interests. The caregiving journey requires daily dedication and perseverance, often over several years and, sometimes, even decades.
The constant pressure to provide care for a family member with a chronic illness, disease, or disability leads family caregivers to experience intense stress and worry—these stressors and worries layer on over time, often without the caregiver realizing the repercussions.
What do Frogs and Caregivers Have in Common?
Have you ever heard the fable about boiling a frog? If you put a frog in boiling water, it will quickly react and jump out to safety. However, if you first place a frog in a pot of room temperature water while slowly bringing the water to a boil, the frog won’t realize it is being boiled alive. This story is a frequently used metaphor to understand how some people are unwilling or unable to react to the dangerous threats around them when they gradually arise.
Caregiver burnout is like this gradual boil. A week, month, and year of just pushing through caregiving responsibilities while juggling other parts of life will eventually take its toll.
Here’s the good news: unlike frogs, humans can read. I hope this list of common signs of caregiver burnout will grab your attention and save you from drowning!
Five Common Signs of Caregiver Burnout
1. You’re losing interest in the things you love.
Perhaps you used to love to shop, cook, read, try new restaurants, or hike. Now, you have zero interest in any of these activities. If you find little desire in the activities which used to bring you great enjoyment, this can be a sign of caregiver burnout.
Participation in any activity requires energy. Caregiving responsibilities without intentional breaks will deplete your energy, leaving you emotionally and physically exhausted.
Withdrawing from people and isolating simply to avoid interacting may seem like a quick-fix solution. Still, social isolation can contribute to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Besides, isolation can also exacerbate our pain and anxiety levels, and lead to overmedicating in an attempt to ease symptoms.
2. Your emotions are running high.
You remember being an emotionally balanced person, even early on in your caregiving journey. You had more patience with your care recipient and loved ones. Now, you find that you have a much shorter fuse and are more argumentative with loved ones. You are easily irritated with strangers. Your emotional outbursts are not just a day here or there; they are frequently happening and can feel like an unstoppable emotional rollercoaster. When you no longer feel like your ‘old self,’ this can be a sign of caregiver burnout.
3. You’re developing unhealthy habits.
You didn’t intend to acquire an unhealthy addiction; it just happened over time – similar to the frog boiling analogy. You were desperate to feel good and escape from reality. You wanted to find a pleasurable way to suppress your uncomfortable feelings and found relief in these items or activities. At one point, they helped you cope with a difficult day, but now you realize all your caregiving days are difficult. Unhealthy habits can form when we repeatedly practice these behaviors.
Be wary of becoming dependent on these habits and requiring more significant quantities of food, alcohol, or medication to achieve the desired level of relief. Excessive hours playing video games, gambling, and online shopping will potentially deplete your physical and financial resources, too. If you find it unmanageable to curb these unhealthy habits and substances, this can be a severe sign of caregiver burnout.
4. You’re experiencing changes in your health.
Often, the human body shows physical signs when in distress. Some signs that our bodies are trying to get our attention are:
- Weight change (either gain or loss)
- Acne or hives
- Headaches or other aches and pains
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Dark circles under eyes
- Being sick more often
Physical stress that is left unchecked can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.
Changes in your emotional health can also happen when you experience caregiver burnout. You may feel helpless and hopeless. Or, if the situation has escalated, you may even have thoughts of hurting yourself or others.
5. Your level of care has reduced.
When burned out, you may find that the quality of the care you have been providing has diminished. You may be skipping steps for your care recipient or hurrying through the steps to the point that they are no longer as effective.
Maybe your hygiene and self-care is no longer a priority. You aren’t showering regularly, brushing your teeth, and are canceling your appointments.
Initial Steps to Address Caregiver Burnout
If you read this and realize you have a handful of these warning signs, don’t panic. Instead, give yourself some grace. You did not intentionally mean to end up with caregiver burnout. You got here by being a highly compassionate and empathetic person who made lots of sacrifices to pour love and attention into caring for another human being. The “give it all away” mindset can work for a short sprint of caregiving, but similar to a car that runs out of gas, you can’t survive (and provide care to others) on fumes.
Here are a few initial steps you can take to help address your burnout:
- Talk to someone who understands your situation. Locate a virtual or in-person caregiver support group by searching for one in your area. You may find a group on Facebook for caregivers related to a particular disease or demographic.
- Seek professional help. Depending on your circumstances, you can also reach out to a licensed therapist or certified caregiving consultant if you prefer one-on-one support. Once you take the first step to reach out, the rest of the tools and resources to assist you in your specific situation will begin to fall into place.
- Let technology help you. Hero is one solution that can streamline your care recipient’s medication management by automatically sorting and dispensing their pills on schedule and tracking their adherence through their mobile app. Hero’s service also allows you to receive notifications when it’s time for their dose, if one of their pills was missed or taken late, and even if any medications are in need of a refill. Hero is wildly popular among those living with heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS), behavioral health conditions, autism, Parkinson’s, and other conditions that require complex medication regimens. To learn more about Hero, click here.
Elizabeth B. Miller is a family caregiver, Certified Caregiving Consultant, and founder of Happy Healthy Caregiver.