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Caregiver Fatigue and Self Care

By: Emma Coate, LCSW

Many of us are caregivers in our personal or professional lives, or both. On a personal level, caregiving may involve caring for small children, an older or ailing parent, a sick friend or sibling, or even for a pet. Professionally, we may work in high-stress environments with significant pressure to provide output, we may care for and heal patients or represent clients, and often we take on our client or employer’s needs. In order to succeed in both personal and professional realms, it’s important to be able to identify “caregiver fatigue” in ourselves and to remedy it with self-care before we burn out.

Caregiver fatigue can take many forms, but common symptoms include physical and emotional exhaustion that can resemble depression. Someone experiencing this form of fatigue may feel drained and tired and may even get ill frequently due to a weakened immune system from constant stress. Caregivers may feel hopeless, overwhelmed or overloaded and may feel anger and resentment toward their work, employer, co-workers, or toward those for whom they are caring. These physical symptoms and feelings can result in a decline in quality work and in caregiving itself, which, in turn, causes more resentment and fatigue. It can be a vicious cycle.

This is why it’s important to add self-care to your daily routine to break the cycle. It may feel difficult to find time in a busy and overwhelmed life, but it’s important to make time for yourself in order to defeat this cycle and prevent serious burnout. Here are a few tips for adding self-care to your routine:

  1. Identify and reduce extra stressors, where possible: It’s always good to identify areas of stress in your life to see if they can be reduced or eliminated. If you’re a caregiver to kids or family, are there extra stressors at work that could be reduced? If you’re in a caregiving profession, are there extra stressors at home that can be reduced? Write a list of stressors and assess if they can be eliminated. Assess “stress input” such as a challenging friendship or even the media you consume. Instead of choosing something violent or intense on TV, relax to something funny or uplifting to unwind.
  2. Do one thing a day, just for yourself: As a caregiver, we tend to forget ourselves. We may provide daily, nightly, or routine care for young children; an aging or ill parent; or to a friend going through a challenging time. As a professional, we may be so wrapped up in work, that we lose ourselves. it’s imperative to find time for yourself at least once a day. This can be as easy as grabbing a cup of coffee by yourself or with a friend, taking a half hour walk or a drive, calling a friend, or reading a magazine or book. Make a list of activities that help you feel refreshed and cared for. Make these part of your daily routine.
  3. Find a social or professional group: If you’re a parent or caregiver in your personal life, it can often feel isolating and overwhelming. It helps to have peers who can relate for support. Find a social group or peer groups of similar caregivers. Look online for playgroups or start building friendships with other parents at school or at the playground. For the overwhelmed professional, attend professional workshops or conferences where you can meet and network with other professionals to discuss work to help reduce feelings of isolation and overload.
  4. Define boundaries and know when to say “no”: Many caregivers and high-achieving professionals have a hard time saying “no.” In order to maintain good boundaries for yourself, and to avoid added stress, it’s important to learn when to say “no,” when not to take on more work, and when to delegate. Before saying “yes” to extra work or more caregiving responsibilities, think it through. Figure out if the extra work is absolutely necessarily, if the benefits will outweigh the deficits, and if you’re able to take on more. The answers to these questions can help guide your decision. And remember it is ok to say “no” sometimes.
  5. Exercise: Exercise is proven to reduce stress and alleviate the “flight or fight” symptoms we get from excess adrenaline in the system due to stress. You will feel better during and after exercise, and it’s something positive that you can do for yourself. Try to add this to your daily routine, even if it’s just a 20 minute walk.

At the earliest symptoms of fatigue (exhaustion, anger, hopelessness, or depression), apply these tips early and often to your daily routine to help prevent burnout and to alleviate the symptoms of Caregiver Fatigue.

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