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When the Caregiver Needs Care: Recognizing Burnout

When we learn that someone is facing an illness or needing extra care, our thoughts immediately go to them – as they should. We wonder how they’re feeling. We ask them what we can do for them. We check in on them more frequently. We know they probably need extra support, and it’s right to offer it to them.

What may not be as obvious is that the people who are primarily responsible for taking care of others in need are also deserving of these same questions and actions. Being a caregiver is hard work mentally, physically, and emotionally. Two cliches ring true: “Put on your own breathing mask before helping others put on theirs” and “You can’t pour from an empty glass.” If there’s nothing left in you to give to yourself, what are you giving to someone else?

Caregiving can be an extremely rewarding task – just ask parents of the tiny babies who are completely reliant on others. Giving to others is a part of us. It provides beautiful, powerful bonds to others, and many would not give up caretaking experiences if given the option, no matter how hard they might have been.

It is easy as a caregiver to not realize how we ourselves are doing mentally, physically, and emotionally. Others may have to point to us that they notice how tired/stressed/angry/depleted/etc. we are. It’s important as a caregiver to be able to notice the signs of caregiver burnout. The following are common signs that you, the caregiver, are in need of a reset:

You are not eating or sleeping enough, or you are eating or sleeping too much.

The reason you constantly read advice about taking care of your body by eating healthy foods, sleeping enough, and exercising is because these are foundational ways to take care of yourself that really do matter and make a difference.

You feel angry toward the person you are taking care of.

This is not an uncommon feeling, and it does not make you a bad person. It often serves as a reminder that you have entered a space in which you need to prioritize your own needs; use the opportunity as a chance to think about the source of your angry feelings and figure out how to get your own needs filled.

You feel as though you are the only person capable of caregiving for your family member/friend/patient.

Feeling as if you alone are capable of doing for another is a red flag that you are overstressed and need to take a step back. The reality is there will be others who are just as ready and capable of taking over some of your duties while you take care of yourself. An experiment you can try if you’re having trouble with this concept is to meditate on what it would be like if you weren’t available – wouldn’t others take on your responsibilities?

You are losing touch with the parts of you that do not fall under the identity of “caregiver.”

You are more than your caregiver role. Think back on what makes you come alive in this world and put together a plan of action.

You have been told by others that you need to slow down and take care of yourself – and you don’t see the value in that.

When you hear this from your own loved ones, this is exactly when it’s most important that you take a break for yourself. Listen to those who truly love you and care about you.

An important reminder when grappling with the realization that you might be experiencing caregiver burnout is that it does you no good to beat yourself up about this. Be kind to yourself, and remember that therapy is a very brave way to take care of yourself when you find yourself at this junction.

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