Strategies for Coping with Caregiver Stress.

What happens when a family member falls ill, and you find yourself taking on the role of caregiver?

There are many circumstances under which we may find ourselves in the role of caregiver for a sick family member. Your life can change overnight, and everything can be thrown in to chaos. Adding to the stress is the fact that you didn’t choose this. If you’re not careful, it can take a toll on your health and wellbeing. How can you deal with the stress and exhaustion that comes with filling this very demanding role?

What is a Caregiver?

caregiver_02Anyone who cares for a sick, disabled, or aging family member, neighbor, or friend, is a caregiver.  It’s important to know this, since identifying as a caregiver can aid in finding help if you need it. Caregivers are ordinary folks put into extraordinary situations, and they come from all walks of life. A caregiver may have no medical training, and will have to learn quickly how to care for their loved one.

A caregiver may take care of their loved one in their own home. Their loved one may need 24-hour-a-day care, and with a wide range of ailments that would necessitate this sort of attention, there are no set procedures or protocols for a newly-minted caregiver to follow.

All of this is a lot for a new caregiver to take on. This can potentially lead to what is known as Caregiver Stress Syndrome.

What is Caregiver Stress Syndrome?

caregiver_01Caregiver Stress Syndrome can be broadly defined as a “condition of exhaustion, anger, rage, or guilt that results from unrelieved caring for a chronically ill dependent.” It carries with it a number of symptoms, including exhaustion (both physically and emotionally), feelings of hopelessness, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, irritability, and compulsions to hurt yourself or the person for which you are caring. It is a serious condition that should not be ignored.

The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual, or DSM, which is a handbook for diagnosing mental disorders, makes no mention of caregiver stress. For this reason, physicians may not be sure how to deal with the collection of symptoms that arise. Ultimately, it may fall entirely on you, the caregiver, to seek out help and treatment.

Feeling Stressed?

As a caregiver, your loved one is depending on you, and it’s up to you to keep yourself in top shape. Here are a few ways to relieve stress:

  • Ask for help. You don’t have to go it alone. There are resources you can contact to bring in some extra help (links below). In a pinch, you can ask family members to sit with your loved one so you can take a break and get some rest. And if someone offers to help, don’t be shy. Say “yes.”
  • Don’t neglect your health. Taking care of yourself should be priority number one. There’s a reason they tell you on an airplane to fit your own oxygen mask before assisting others. You’ll do your best work if you keep yourself healthy, so get your usual checkups and make sure you see your doctor if you get sick.
  • Get some exercise. Regular exercise can help with fatigue, and focusing on your workout for a few minutes a day – which gives your mind a break – can go a long way toward reducing your overall stress.
  • Eat a balanced diet. We all struggle to eat well, and the added stress of being a caregiver can take a heavy toll on our bodies. Make sure you’re getting proper nutrition, and avoid processed “convenience” foods. Your body will thank you.
  • Get a massage. Massage as part of your self-care routine is a great way to reduce stress and ease your aches and pains. You may think it’s selfish to indulge yourself with a massage, but remember that your own health is important, and studies have shown that massage therapy is very effective in reducing stress. And less stress is better for you and your loved one.

As always, if you have any questions about your health, see your doctor. You’ll do great as a caregiver, but don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.