Coping with Caregiving
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
Whether you are a parent, caring for a loved one, or are responsible for caregiving in your professional role, extending your emotional resources to another person can be both incredibly rewarding and undeniably challenging. Here are a few tips that may help you cope with the challenges of caregiving.
Acknowledge the Effects of Caregiving
According to recent research done by AARP, nearly 1 in 5 Americans today are providing unpaid care to family members, totaling nearly 53 million adults (AARP and National Alliance for Caregiving, 2020). Caregiving can be a rewarding, yet incredibly challenging endeavor for many people who take on the role. Some caregivers actively choose to become caregivers, and others feel as though they have not been able to choose their role. Caregivers may experience increased financial stress, a lack of time and motivation to engage in positive or enjoyable activities, and feelings of loneliness. Caregivers often experience depression, anxiety, and chronic stress that can impact physical health and wellness (Schultz, R. & Sherwood, P.R., 2008). Caregiving is often a double-edged sword of meaningful, purposeful work, and increased risk for chronic stress or feelings of depression. Acknowledging both the rewards and the challenges of caregiving can help you determine how to cope with your unique situation and evaluate whether professional support may be beneficial.
Mindfulness is the practice of experiencing the present moment without judgment. This means you do not evaluate whether the feelings you are experiencing are positive or negative, you are simply experiencing them for what they are. Experiencing your own emotional state without judgment can be a useful technique to help one cope with challenging emotions and manage emotional reserves. There are many guides online with mindfulness exercises. Some techniques include:
- Focused meditation or prayer for even just 5-10 minutes
- Doing a “body scan” to experience your physical presence in the moment
- Take deep “belly” breaths or use “square” breathing (Inhale 4 counts, hold 4 counts, exhale 4 counts, hold 4 counts)
- Use your five senses to identify things you feel, hear, smell, see, and taste
Balance Self and Others
You may have heard the adage, “You cannot pour from an empty cup”, which is especially true when caring for someone else. Taking care of yourself and your own needs is incredibly important, as is self-compassion. This may include getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising, taking intentional time to participate in enjoyable activities, and/or remaining connected in relationships. Remind yourself that you are human, and in your humanity, is both incredible strength, and the need to “recharge”. Take time to fill your own cup regularly to decrease stress and to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout.
Recognize Signs of Compassion Fatigue and Burnout
According to the American Insititue of Stress, compassion fatigue is defined as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” (American Insititue of Stress, 2020). Some signs of compassion fatigue may include but are not limited to:
- Physical symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal distress
- Decreased empathy/detachment
- Difficulty sleeping
Burnout, on the other hand, is defined as a “cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with increased workload and institutional stress, NOT trauma-related.” (American Institute of Stress, 2020). Some symptoms of burnout may include but are not limited to:
- Mood swings
The main difference between burnout and compassion fatigue is that compassion fatigue includes secondary trauma through regular experiences hearing about, empathizing with, and holding emotions for those who have experienced trauma, whereas burnout does not include this secondary trauma component, but still produces significant stress responses. Recognizing the signs of burnout and/or compassion fatigue can help you identify your own emotional needs, and determine if professional support may be helpful.
Take Time to Decompress
Taking the time to relax and decompress is important, especially since caregivers are often at risk for chronic stress, which can affect one’s health and wellness. Whether you have been a caregiver for a long time, or you have just recently taken on the role, consider activities that bring you joy and invest and prioritize time to pursue them. This may look like doing a yoga routine, reading a book, going for a walk or a drive, baking, journaling, playing a sport, walking your dog, or scrapbooking. Any activity that helps you to de-stress is beneficial. It may be difficult to find time to engage in these activities, but it is important to make these activities a prioritized task during a reasonable margin of time during your day or week, rather than a “maybe if I have time” activity. Taking the time to de-stress is an important investment in your health and wellness.
Caregivers may feel as though they are alone or experience an increased sense of loneliness and may be tempted to withdraw from social supports if experiencing distress or chronic stress. However, it is important to reach out for support and engage in positive, healthy relationships. If possible, use respite when you are feeling overwhelmed, seek emotional support from trustworthy friends and family, and consider if professional support may be beneficial for you.
Caregiving can be a wonderfully rewarding experience; however, it can also be emotionally and physically challenging. Seeking support from friends and family, engaging in self-care and self-compassion, and recognizing the symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue can help caregivers maintain a sense of balance and manage their own vital emotional resources.
Schulz, R., & Sherwood, P. R. (2008). Physical and mental health effects of family caregiving. The American journal of nursing, 108(9 Suppl), 23–27. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.NAJ.0000336406.45248.4c
AARP and National Alliance for Caregiving. Caregiving in the United States 2020. Washington, DC: AARP. May 2020. https://doi.org/10.26419/ppi.00103.001
American Institute of Stress. Compassion Fatigue. (2017, January 04). Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue