Caregivers often focus much of their energy and attention on the person they care for. However, neglecting yourself and ignoring your needs can lead to burnout, stress and illness. That makes self-care for caregivers especially important.
Care for caregivers
Anyone caring for a loved one’s basic needs, whether they choose to take on this role or it falls to them, is a caregiver. This can include helping aging parents, a child with a disability or a sick spouse or sibling. Being a caregiver can be a rewarding experience – but it can also be exhausting and stressful, often leading to burnout if caregivers don’t take care of themselves in the process.
Signs of caregiver stress and burnout
It may be hard to recognize when caregiving has started to take a toll on you. Caregivers report often that they are so focused on the person they care for that they don’t notice when they need help. Some signs to pay attention to include:
- Feeling irritable or angry often
- Worrying all the time
- Sleeping too much or not enough
- Feeling tired often
- Losing interest in things you once enjoyed
- Misusing alcohol or drugs
- Missing your own health care appointments
- Having frequent headaches or other health problems
Chronic high stress levels can negatively impact your health. Whether that looks like not getting enough physical activity, neglecting a balanced diet or constantly worrying about your loved one, these can all lead to an array of conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety.
Your health matters, too
There are plenty of reasons caregivers feel that they can’t do more than the minimum for themselves: someone else needs you, you don’t have time, there’s too much to do, you’re feeling guilty. However, taking care of your physical and mental health is necessary to make you a better caregiver.
Ask for help
For many people, it’s difficult to ask for help. However, no one can do it all, and most people could use a helping hand sometimes. When it comes to caregiving, accepting help from others can allow you to free up time to focus on yourself. Allowing someone else to do tasks like picking up groceries, taking the person you care for on a short walk, cooking a meal or simply sitting with them while you do something you enjoy can reduce your stress and help you feel more like yourself.
When it comes to asking for help, make your request simple and specific. Also, understand that some people may be hesitant or uncomfortable. But more often than not, people want to and will accept your request.
Find community support
Depending on the community you are in, many have resources you can utilize to take some pressure off your caregiving responsibilities. These can include in-home care, mental health programs, adult daycare programs, community meal programs, senior centers and respite care.
Your local government may be able to point you in the right direction of where to access these programs or can refer you to a service that connects caregivers like you with professionals who provide these services.
Get enough sleep
This may seem straightforward but prioritize getting enough sleep each night. As the saying goes, you can’t burn a candle at both ends – and getting too little sleep is likely to fast-track you to burnout and health problems. Eight hours is recommended for the average adult, but finding the right amount of sleep for you may be personal.
Maintain a healthy diet
A healthy diet is along the same lines as getting enough sleep. Eating a balanced diet gives you the necessary amount of vitamins and minerals that not only keep you healthy but also may help you naturally lower your stress levels. This also includes drinking plenty of water to ensure you are well-hydrated.
Move your body
The other half of a healthy diet is exercise. Moving your body not only helps you build strength, balance, endurance and flexibility, but it also helps you sleep better, increases your energy and helps reduce stress and tension. If you’re new to exercising regularly, you can start with walking and move on to other exercises like yoga, running or other workouts as you progress.
Try relaxation techniques
As you start exercising, try to add practices that improve your mind-body awareness, such as yoga and meditation. Deep, calm breathing, a cornerstone of yoga and meditation practices, has been shown to reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Even starting small in 10- to 15-minute increments can help you see those benefits.
Join a support group or see a health care professional
Sometimes, speaking to someone who understands what you’re dealing with can make a big difference. That’s where a support group comes in. Joining a support group for caregivers can help you feel seen and heard, and is supposed to be a safe place for you to share your struggles. This is also true of health care professionals, such as therapists or counselors. They are trained to help you work through your emotions from an outside perspective.
Along with stress, many caregivers often struggle with feeling isolated from others. It may feel difficult to maintain appointments with family and friends, but doing so can feel like a reminder that you are more than just a caregiver. Get lunch with a coworker, see a movie with your cousin or practice your favorite hobbies with a friend – spending time with others outside of your role as a caregiver can remind you that you’re not alone.
Give yourself grace
Understanding that you can’t do it all and that you’re doing your best is crucial to practicing self-care for caregivers. Show yourself some compassion, and when you feel like you are failing or lost, remember that no one is perfect or right all the time. It takes time to build good habits, and as you take time for yourself, you’ll find you’re a better caregiver to the person you’re caring for.
Caring for you
Staying healthy and well is important to both your health and that of the person you’re caring for. Self-care for caregivers is important, but so is seeing your primary care provider regularly to keep tabs on your own well-being.
Learn more about the primary care services we provide at Mercy Health.