11 Tips to Avoid Caregiver Burnout
You need to make time for yourself in order to avoid the stress that could lead to caregiver burnout. Here's how.
You need to take care of you
Being a caregiver can be a rewarding yet stressful role which is why caregivers are at a high risk of burnout, says Shane G. Owens, PhD, a psychologist and adjunct clinical supervisor for the Long Island University Psy.D. Program in Clinical Psychology. Due to the demanding and never-ending nature of the role, caregivers are at risk for high levels of stress, frustration, anxiety, exhaustion, anger, depression, and increased use of alcohol or other substances. What's more, caregivers may have a reduced immune response, poor physical health, and other chronic conditions, and they may neglect their own care and have a higher mortality risk than other people the same age who are not caregivers, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance. (Read one woman's story about being a caregiver for a spouse with bipolar disorder during coronavirus quarantine.)
One of the best things you can do for the person you taking care of is to take care of yourself, he says. Easier said than done? Start with these expert tips for reducing your burnout:
Accept difficult feelings
There's a popular stereotype that caregivers must be cheerful, loving, and self-sacrificing at all times and if you're not then you're doing it wrong. You may even be shamed by others if you try to voice negative feelings. "I don't know how this started but it's time to let this go—taking care of another human being is incredibly difficult," says Jennifer Wolkin, PhD, a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at NYU. You might feel helpless, sad, lonely, left out, upset, or even angry. "Those feelings are valid and you shouldn't feel guilty or ashamed for feeling that way," she says. Instead of letting difficult emotions fester, allow yourself to feel them and vent about them to someone who can be understanding and compassionate.
Make a list of back-up caregivers
No matter how much you love someone, you simply cannot be expected to be their only caregiver, Dr. Wolkin says. Make a list of people you can call to come and sit with your loved one, take over some of their care, or take them out for the day so you can get a break, she says. Consider asking friends, siblings, children, extended relatives, neighbors or others to be your backup—they may jump at the opportunity to spend some time with someone they care about while giving you a break. It's okay to ask for help!
Research community services
Depending on the situation, you and/or your loved one may qualify for services from the government, like a paid health aide or disability benefits. They may also be eligible for free community programs, including fitness and educational classes, or volunteer groups. Using these services and programs can take some pressure off of you and free up resources for other priorities. For help finding resources available in your area, check out the FCA's Family Care Navigator.
Make a date
Whether you're married, in a relationship, or single, it's important to nurture the other important relationships in your life. If the person you are taking care of is not your partner, and you do have a spouse or partner, they may feel like a distant second on the priority list, Dr. Wolkin says. Prioritize date night with your partner and allow them to take care of you and love you as well. It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive, anything, where you can get away just the two of you, is great.
Be proactive about preventing burnout
It's much easier to prevent burnout than to cure it once it's set in which is why it's so important to recognize it as soon as your start to feel overwhelmed, explains psychologist Janet Scarborough Civitelli, who has worked with families and caregivers in hospitals and community mental health settings. “Many people don’t realize how gradually stress and burnout can creep up, or recognize the need for self-care until it’s too late," Civitelli says. "Half the battle is being proactive and preventing burnout, which is better than needing to recover from it later.”
Schedule "you" time
Civitelli suggests, “Even when you don’t feel you ‘need’ it because you’re a caregiver, you need it! Take some time doing something you love.” Having something actually scheduled on your calendar, like a book club meeting, will be a reminder that you’ve committed that time. Stick to it.
Get your own support group
Caregiver support programs are available through hospitals, mental health agencies, and churches. Sharing your experiences with other caregivers will help you feel less alone and will “normalize” common feelings of helplessness, sadness, burnout, and frustration, Dr. Owens says. If you believe you are depressed or anxious, you may want to seek a therapist’s help, he adds.
Get some exercise every day
There are significant mental and physical health benefits of exercise, helping to lessen the effects of burnout on both your body and mind, Dr. Wolkin says. It doesn't have to be intense to be beneficial, it just needs to be consistent, he says. Invigorating exercise, like jogging or lifting weights, can help increase your energy while meditative activities, like yoga, can decrease stress. "Don't put a lot of pressure on yourself as that makes exercise stressful, not relaxing," she cautions. "Do what you can and accept that may change from day to day."
Make time for hobbies
Some people find that enjoying nature and outdoor activities to be very rejuvenating, or they stimulate their senses by visiting a museum, or attending a concert. Others thrive by learning something new, like taking a cooking class or learning a foreign language. The point is to find a hobby that makes you feel relaxed and happy and to make time to do those activities on a regular basis, Dr. Owens says.
Spend time with pets
Animals offer unconditional love, a listening ear, a snuggle buddy, and an exercise partner. Pets can be immensely comforting for caregivers and a great way to relieve stress, Dr. Wolkin says. Just make sure to get one that is relatively low-maintenance as you're already spending a lot of time caring for another living being.
Reach out to your friends
Caregivers spend so much time caring for loved ones that they often neglect to socialize with friends. It's also common for caregivers to feel left out, seeing your friends and loved ones doing things without you. "If you're feeling lonely or isolated, reach out to your friends and set up a time to get together," Dr. Wolkin says. "Find people who make you feel happy and build you up. Don't be afraid to make the first move."
- Shane G. Owens, PhD, a psychologist and adjunct clinical supervisor for the Long Island University Psy.D. Program in Clinical Psychology
- Family Caregiver Alliance: “Caregiving Fact Sheet”
- Janet Scarborough Civitelli, PhD, psychologist in Austin, Texas
- Jennifer Wolkin, PhD, a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at NYU