The Caregiver’s Guide to Self-Care

The Caregiver’s Guide to Self-Care

Are you acting as a caregiver to a loved one? If you are helping to care for an elderly parent or family member, your partner or spouse, or a child that is battling a serious illness or other medical condition, you are considered an Informal Caregiver.

According to womenshealth.gov, 36% of Americans served as informal caregivers and provided unpaid care to another adult with an illness or disability in 2012, and that number has almost certainly climbed as the baby boomer population continues to age.

Serving as an informal caregiver is super important in the medical care of your loved one and your loved one’s quality of life. It is also a very rewarding way to give back to those you love, but is not without its physical and emotional challenges. Here I will be sharing how to tell if you are starting to develop Caregiver Burnout and discuss ways to address or prevent it.

Do You Have Caregiver Burnout?

Caregiver burnout is extremely common – Informal caregivers are often thrust into taking care of their loved one’s medical needs, an area most are not familiar with. That means not only are informal caregivers learning new skills but they are also supporting their loved one emotionally, which can take its own emotional toll on the caregiver. Here are some of the most common signs of caregiver burnout:

  • Uncharacteristic irritability and impatience
  • Difficulties falling or staying asleep
  • Forgetfulness and concentration problems
  • Somatic symptoms, such as headaches and gastrointestinal distress
  • Changes in appetite (increase or decrease)
  • Turning to substances to self-medicate
  • Lack of interest in friendships and hobbies
  • Thoughts of harming oneself or the person being cared for
  • Increased illness
  • Anxiety and/or depression

With so many people relying on their informal caregivers for their day-to-day needs, it’s crucial that our caregivers have a plan for how to take care of themselves too!

In order to avoid caregiver burnout, we have to talk about the all important (and sometimes loathed) concept of Self-Care. Now, I want you to remember that self-care is NOT getting a massage everyday after meditating for 2 hours and only eating kale. Self-care plans are unique to every individual and can be as small as drinking a cup of tea in the evening before bed. I encourage you to keep an open mind about how you define self-care while I list some important starting places below:

Get More Sleep

The quantity and quality of sleep you get each night will have a HUGE impact on how you feel physically, mentally and emotionally. Of course, stress can make it hard for us to get good sleep, which can then make us dread sleep, resulting in a vicious cycle.

For your best chances of catching some Zs, make sure to avoid caffeinated beverages after 2 pm and try to cut out screen time an hour before bed. The blue light emitted from our screens messes with our sleep cycle by telling your circadian rhythm that it is still light outside and not time to go to bed. You can also switch your devices to “night shift” mode so they emit less blue light both during the day and night. If falling asleep is the biggest problem for you, you may also want to use room-darkening curtains to make your bedroom dark in the morning so you don’t awaken too early.

Get Plenty of Exercise

Yes, I know, you’ve heard it a million times, but don’t skip reading this just yet! As an informal caregiver, you’re carrying around extra stress, tension, and balled-up emotions that need to go somewhere, or you’re likely to become sick yourself. Exercise is a great way to work all of this “stuff” out of you and release the built up tension. As a bonus, your body releases endorphins after a good workout, and these chemicals give your mood a nice boost.

Don’t over think exercise – even a 20-30 minute walk each day can be sufficient to get your blood flowing and to relieve stress. If you want something more intense, check out the 7-Minute Workout to help you really break a sweat in a short amount of time.

Eat Right

When we’re stressed, we instinctively want to reach for comfort foods that are often packed full of sugar, salt, and other not so healthy (but delicious!) ingredients. While this is ok in moderation (let’s be real here), it is important to be aware of what and how much you are eating – being a caregiver for someone else means you have to stay healthy and strong! Instead of (or in addition to) your comfort food choices, opt for protein and healthy fats (avocado is one of my favorites) along with some organic produce.

Ask for Help

Let’s be honest, asking for help is not exactly easy under normal circumstances and, as an informal caregiver, the stakes and responsibility can be so high that asking for help can sometimes be interpreted as failing. While everyone around you may refer to you as “superhuman,” the truth is, you’re just human, and you can’t handle everything by yourself ALL of the time. First and foremost, challenge that thought with everything you’ve got – asking for help does not mean you’re not good enough or that you don’t have what it takes to care for your loved one. Asking for help is being honest and realistic with yourself precisely because you have your loved one’s interests in mind.

I recommend coming up with a list of 2-3 trusted people you can call on when in need. You may even work with these supports to make a schedule that gives you time for yourself once or twice a week. During this time, it may be tempting to run errands and check things off the to-do list. DO NOT DO THIS!! I FORBID YOU!! This is time you are scheduling for and with yourself – just like you wouldn’t break any important doctor’s appointment for your loved one unless it was absolutely necessary, start to view this time with the same importance.

Talk to Someone

Of course I am biased here, being a psychologist, but this is really important for your overall emotional AND physical health. Ideally it’s not a last resort and can be a regular part of your self-care plan rather than waiting until you can no longer cope with the stress, anxiety, or depression (maybe this is one of the scheduled self-care times we talked about above?) . Just like you are helping your loved one cope, you deserve to have someone in your corner as well.

If you or someone you know is a caregiver that could use someone to talk to, please feel free to be in touch. Working with caregivers is one of my passions and I love helping both formal and informal caregivers thrive in their roles. I have also written other related blogs on topics like Vicarious Trauma (what is it and how to identify and address VT) and overcoming traumatic injury, a common reason that loved ones become informal caregivers.

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