What is caregiver burnout or syndrome? Can it be prevented?
Work-related stress and burnout is frequently studied and talked about, but not too much has been studied specifically to caregiver burnout. Yet, it appears that it may be more than just stressful. It can have an impact on the brain, as well.
Why would there be stress from caring for someone you love? Work-related stress is often acknowledged, but is it true that a caregiver can end up with damage to one’s own brain from caring for someone else? The following describes how family caregiving really can create problems for the brain, and information follows as to what can be done to prevent it, too.
What Does Caregiver Burnout Look Like?
A family caregiver’s burnout may be recognized by the same symptoms of other types of stress and depression. The symptoms can vary, and include exhaustion, anger, social withdrawal, lack of appetite, weight control issues, sleep problems, extreme fatigue, digestive concerns, lowered immune function, and more. Although you won’t find “Caregiver Syndrome” listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, healthcare professionals often use this term when describing caregiver burnout and its negative effects.
An interesting post entitled, “The Effects of Caregiver Stress on the Body and Brain,” on the Alzheimer’s Care Resource Center website reports that caregiving often has a major impact on one’s overall physical health, especially when the caregiving lasts for extended periods of time.
The degree of burnout symptoms may be connected to the individual’s genetic traits, education, financial circumstances, and even previous mental conditions. With roughly 70% of caregivers suffering from depression, smart caregiving stress management must start with a self-monitoring and awareness. One must be aware of any developing symptoms, so things can be improved quickly. Just as with other chronic stress, caregiver burnout can harm the brain. Stress can trigger a chemical change in the brain that negatively impacts memory capacity and even decreases learning abilities.
Situational Versus Long-Term Stress
The role of caregiving can be challenging and is likely to test anyone’s emotions and psyche. Even short-term stress can make people irritable, anxious, tense, distracted and forgetful, but it can get worse from there. When caregivers deny their negative emotions, stress hormones (cortisol) levels can greatly increase and these elevated levels may, unfortunately, impact one’s physical, emotional and mental health in negative ways. Research on caregiver risks shows effects on immune and endocrine functioning, depression, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease and even risk of death. A Huffington Post article recently warned that severe life events may “harm your brain’s memory and learning capacity by reducing the volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions.” Stated in plain words, chronic stress may shrink the brain.
Tips for Handling Caregiver Burnout Before It Damages your Brain
When you find stress levels climbing, consider improving your brain power with some common sense remedies offered by the Mayo Clinic:
Accept help. Take a break when it’s offered. Make an ongoing list of things that friends and family or a healthcare professional could help you with – anything from running errands, buying groceries, cooking meals, light housekeeping or simply spending time with the person you are caring for, so you can have a respite.
Take care of yourself. Chances are you are doing a fantastic job caring for your aging loved one, so don’t allow feelings of guilt to paralyze you. Don’t go for perfection. Just do your best and take care of yourself, too.
Perform a reality check. Caregivers often do too much and run themselves ragged with almost superhuman efforts. Set ample time aside to get yourself organized and go after small realistic goals. This is also a great time to learn to say “no.”
Research community resources. Once you have completed a list of your needs, search for local resources that may be available to help. You might even find a class relevant to your situation or perhaps, there may be a local support group that will help you feel like you’re not alone. Sometimes services like transportation, meal prep or delivery, and housekeeping are the answer.
Self-care. Don’t lose view of your own personal health goals. Are you getting enough sleep? Don’t leave out exercise. Eat healthy and drink enough fresh water. Don’t neglect visits to your own doctor.
Respite Care May Help
Often, giving yourself (and your brain) a break from the daily grind is the best thing you can do for yourself, so consider respite care. Respite care is defined as the temporary care of a dependent person, so that their regular caregiver has some time to recuperate and recover. Sometimes this involves in-home respite, when a professional will assist with your loved one, so you can take time to relax for a bit. Sometimes an aide provides short-term assistance while a caregiver takes a nice mini-vacation or simply spends the day taking time for walking or bicycling outdoors. Enjoying social time by visiting with friends may be just what is needed for feeling refreshed and recharged.
A family caregiver has an important and challenging task. If you are a caregiver, remember to take care of yourself and keep stress managed as much as possible. If you feel like you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout, don’t hesitate to ask for help. The best way to care for someone you love is often to look after yourself first.