If you’re a family caregiver for a loved one, you’ve likely become accustomed to spending most of your time giving to others while putting yourself at the bottom of the priority list. And, it would be hard not to. Family caregivers spend an average of 24.4 hours per week providing care, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.
Although caregiving can be an incredibly rewarding experience, if the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can have an impact on the family caregiver’s health, relationships, and state of mind — eventually leading to burnout. Nearly three-quarters of family caregivers report not going to the doctor as often as they should, and 55 percent say they skip doctor appointments for themselves. Yet 40 to 70 percent of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression with approximately one-quarter to half of these caregivers meeting the diagnostic criteria for major depression.
But caregiver burnout is a process that usually progresses through stages, giving you the opportunity to recognize symptoms and take the necessary steps to prevent it. Here’s a look at the signs and symptoms of the three stages of caregiver burnout.
Stage One: Caregiver Stress
Stress arousal is the first sign that you’re not getting the physical and emotional support you need. Maybe you’re frustrated or disappointed over your loved one’s deteriorating condition or lack of progress. It can be hard to accept that the quality of your care and effort have nothing to do with the actual health-related decline or mood of the care recipient. This frustration can lead to caregiver stress.
Watch for these signs of caregiver stress:
- Becoming easily irritated or angry
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
- Experiencing periods of high blood pressure
- Grinding your teeth at night
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Being forgetful
- Feeling heart palpitations or unusual heart rhythms (skipped beats)
- Having trouble concentrating
- Having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
If you’re so overwhelmed by taking care of someone else that you've neglected your own physical, mental and emotional well-being, it won’t be long before you’re experiencing caregiver burnout.
Stage Two: Caregiver Burnout
Caregiver burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by the prolonged and overwhelming stress of caregiving.
You might be struggling to maintain a sense of purpose in working so hard to provide care, which leads to feelings of loneliness and being unappreciated, second-guessed, or criticized by other family members and the care recipient.
And you’re probably reluctant, unable, or unwilling to reach out for help from others. Isolation and energy conservation are hallmarks of caregiver burnout. When you’re burned out, it’s tough to do anything, let alone look after someone else.
Watch for these signs of caregiver burnout:
- Being late for work
- Having trouble relaxing, even when help is available
- Experiencing a decreased sexual desire
- Having much less energy than you once had
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Withdrawing socially from friends and/or family
- Thinking cynically
- Feeling increasingly resentful
- Drinking more coffee, tea, and soda
- Drinking, smoking, or eating more
- Experiencing apathy
Any two of these symptoms may signal you’re in stage two of the burnout cycle.
Stage Three: Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. Which means that, unlike caregiver burnout, compassion fatigue results from exposure to another person’s traumatic experience(s) and creates high levels of emotional stress and despair.
Compassion fatigue is most commonly seen among health care professionals, such as nurses, counselors, correctional workers, and child protection workers, but family caregivers are susceptible, too, because they often don’t have access to preventive measures, such as mental health days, peer support, and professional counseling, that many employers offer.
Another difference between caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue is that the final stage of burnout often causes caregivers to experience a weakened sense of empathy for those in their care. Someone might experience a decrease in patience and tolerance or have angry outbursts that are uncharacteristic of their behavior. That’s why it’s important to recognize the red flags that point to the onset of compassion fatigue.
Watch for these signs of compassion fatigue:
- Feeling hopelessness and meaninglessness
- Having chronic stomach or bowel problems
- Feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and drained
- Having chronic headaches
- Desiring to “drop out” of society
- Avoiding and not wanting to be around friends, work, and perhaps even family
- Thinking of suicide as a means of escape
Again, any two of these symptoms may signal you're in stage three of the burnout cycle. The exhaustion stage is where most people finally get a sense that something may be wrong.
So ask yourself: Are you feeling irritable or hopeless, struggling with emotional and physical exhaustion, or getting sick more often? Do you have heightened anxiety or trouble making care decisions?
If your loved one’s need for care is wearing you out, it’s may be time to start considering your assisted living options. Download our eBook for six other warning signs that it’s time to make the move to assisted living.
Although caring for a loved one will never be stress-free, you can rein in the stress of caregiving and regain a sense of balance, joy, and hope in your life.
If your loved one’s need for care is wearing you out, it’s may be time to start considering your assisted living options. Download our eBook for the warning signs that it’s time to make the move to assisted living.