Caregiver burnout: How to protect yourself

Wellness

Trying to manage too many tasks can lead to compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout.  Compassion fatigue can develop when a caregiver finds it hard to balance time for themselves.  Feelings of being trapped may start to develop with simultaneous feelings of guilt for even the thought of abandoning the needs of the care recipient to take care of their own personal needs. 

As these feelings progress over time, the positive feelings of caring for a loved one can change into negative emotions and unconcern for the care recipient. Eventually, this inability to find balance can progress into a condition known as caregiver burnout, which is a prolonged state of physical, emotional and/or mental exhaustion.

Signs of caregiver burnout can go beyond feeling fatigued or tired. Many caregivers report feeling unfocused, lack of interest in things they have typically enjoyed and a declined investment in helping themselves maintain good health or helping others. Changes in personal habits such as decreased sleep, eating too much or too little and disruption in typical routines may occur. 

If not dealt with properly, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness may be prolonged and a caregiver may turn to negative outlets to deal with their feelings. Excessive use of medications or substance abuse may be used to numb their feelings. In time, resentment may build and the caregiver may start to act out by caring for their care recipient in a neglectful or harmful way. 

Avoiding caregiver burnout

To avoid caregiver burnout it is important for caregivers to remember that they must take care of their personal health first. Regular physical check-ups for physical and mental health must be a priority. Physical activity, eating nutritious foods, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule can help to regulate mood and energy. 

Making time for small breaks in caregiving is also important. Whether getting away for a few hours or a few minutes, taking time for oneself is vital. A caregiver may find value in taking short walks or talking on the phone with a friend. Overtime, building on this may include longer breaks to re-engage in a hobby they once enjoyed. 

Keep your emotions in check

Getting in touch with one’s emotions is also important. Keeping a journal may be helpful for some to recognize their feelings and emotions.  For other caregivers, getting involved in a support group routinely may be an avenue of sharing experiences and ways to deal with conflicts or stressors.  If symptoms of depression or anxiety are present, speaking with a trained professional or counselor may be next steps for a caregiver to find healthy coping mechanisms and ways to deal with the stress of caregiving. 

The key is acceptance that you are important.  Maintaining a healthy you is not only beneficial for you, but your care receiver.  Taking care of yourself is the first step in avoiding a road to burnout. 

Michelle McCann is the director of quality and risk management at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Sewickley in Pennsylvania.