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What is Caregiver Stress?
Caregiver stress is the emotional strain of care-giving. Recent studies show that care-giving takes a toll on physical and emotional health. Caregivers are more likely to suffer from depression than their peers. Limited research suggests that caregivers are more likely to have health problems like diabetes and heart disease than non-caregivers.
Caring for another person takes a lot of time, effort and work. Plus, most caregivers juggle care-giving with full-time jobs and parenting. In the process, caregivers often put their own needs aside. Caregivers often report that it is difficult to look after their own health in terms of exercise, nutrition and doctor’s visits. As a result, caregivers often end up feeling angry, anxious, isolated and sad.
Caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other kinds of dementia are especially vulnerable to burnout. Research shows that most dementia caregivers suffer from depression and stress. Also, studies show that the more hours spent on care-giving, the greater the risk of anxiety and depression. Women caregivers are particularly prone to feeling stress and being overwhelmed. Studies show that female caregivers have more emotional and physical health problems, employment related problems, and financial strain than male caregivers.
It is important to note that caring for another person can also create positive emotional change. Aside from feeling stress, many caregivers say their role has had many positive effects on their lives. For example, caregivers report that their role makes them feel useful and gives them a sense of purpose. They say care-giving has made them feel they are making a difference in somebody’s life. It can be helpful to discuss how care-giving has provided benefits to both the caregiver and the care recipient. This focus on the positive aspects of the experience can help give perspective and needed hope when the stress increases.
Stress response narrows your ability to think clearly and function effectively. It can disable you physically and emotionally. The goal of stress management is to bring your nervous system back into balance, giving you a sense of calmness and control in your life. There is no one way a person can relieve stress, and the way we cope with extra demands varies from person to person. Every individual has a unique response to stress, so experiment with a variety of approaches to manage and reduce stress to learn what works best for you.
Ways to Change Your Lifestyle Habits to Manage Stress
- Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep fuels your mind, as well as your body. Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.
- Connect with others. Develop a support system and share your feelings. Perhaps a friend, family member, teacher, clergy person, or counselor can help you see your situation in a different light. Talking with someone else can help you clear your mind of confusion so that you can focus on problem solving.
- Exercise regularly. Find at least 30 minutes, three times a week to do something physical. Moving around and being physically active helps dissipate excess energy. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress.
- Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Be mindful of what you put in your body. Healthy eating fuels your mind, as well as your body. Take time to eat breakfast in the morning. Eating regular meals throughout the day will help give you the energy to think clearly.
- Reduce caffeine and sugar. Avoid consuming too much caffeine and sugar. In excessive amounts, the temporary “highs” they provide often end in fatigue later. You’ll feel more relaxed, less jittery or nervous, and you’ll sleep better. In addition, you’ll have more energy, less heartburn and fewer muscle aches.
- Don’t self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. While consuming alcohol or drugs may appear to alleviate stress, it is only temporary. When sober, the problems and stress will be there. Don’t mask the issue at hand; deal with it head on and with a clear mind.
- Do something for yourself everyday. Take time out from the hustle and bustle of life for leisure time. Too much work is actually inefficient and can lead to burnout. Recognize when you are most stressed and allow yourself reasonable breaks. When things feel especially difficult, take a walk or change the scenery. Most importantly, have fun. Do things that make you happy.
How to Change Your Thinking and Emotional Responses to Handle Stress Better
- Have realistic expectations. Know your limits. Whether personally or professionally, be realistic about how much you can do. Set limits for yourself and learn to say “no” to more work and commitments.
- Reframe problems. See problems as opportunities. As a result of positive thinking, you will be able to handle whatever is causing your stress. Refute negative thoughts and try to see the glass as half full. It’s easy to fall into the rut of seeing only the negative when you are stressed.
- Maintain a sense of humor. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. Watch a funny movie or do something goofy. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.
- Express your feelings instead of keeping them inside. In order to live a less stressful life, learn to calm your emotions. A good cry during periods of stress, or sharing your concerns with someone you trust can be a healthy way of bringing relief to your anxiety.
- Don’t try to control events or other people. Many circumstances in life are beyond your control, particularly the behavior of others. Consider that we live in an imperfect world. Learn to accept what is, for now, until the time comes when perhaps you can change things.
- Ask yourself “is this my problem?” If it isn’t, leave it alone. If it is, can you resolve it now? Once the problem is settled, leave it alone. Don’t agonize over the decision, and try to accept situations you cannot change.
How to Meet the Challenges of Stressful Situations
- Manage time. One of the greatest sources of stress is over-commitment or poor time management. Plan ahead. Make a reasonable schedule for yourself and include time for stress reduction as a regular part of your schedule. When you try to do everything at once, it can seem overwhelming. Make a list of the tasks you have to do, then complete them one at a time, crossing them off as they are done. Doing this will give you a sense of accomplishment.
- Give priority to the most important tasks and do those first. If a particularly unpleasant task faces you, tackle it early in the day and get it over with. You will experience less anxiety the rest of the day as a result. Most importantly, do not overwork yourself. Resist temptation to schedule things back-to-back. All too often, we underestimate how long things will take.
- Schedule time for both work and fun. Too much working is actually inefficient and can lead to burnout.
- Delegate tasks, prioritize, and plan your time. Aim to work in short, intensive periods, which allow you to rest in-between. Break big projects into smaller, more manageable tasks so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Common Techniques for Stress Relief
- Diaphragmatic breathing (abdominal breathing). Stress often causes breathing to be shallow, which nearly always causes more stress, because less oxygen gets into the bloodstream and increases muscle tension. When you are becoming stressed, take a minute to slow down and breathe deeply. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhale enough air, so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. Relaxation exercises help reduce anxiety and stress. To do this, sit in a relaxed position, close your eyes and starting with your head and neck, tense the neck muscles, then relax them. Work your way down the different parts of your body to your toes, tensing and relaxing as you go.
- Meditation. Quiet the mind and engage in exercises that help you focus on your breathing, an object, or your body sensations. The goal is to relax the mind, body, and spirit.
- Yoga. Practicing yoga allows you to build up a natural response to stress and bring a relaxed state more into your daily life.
- Tai Chi. Tai Chi focuses on the breath and the mind’s attention in the present moment.
- Massage. A massage provides deep relaxation and improves physiological processes. As the muscles relax, so does your entire body, as well as your mind.
More Tips to Reduce Stress
- Take a mental vacation. Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine a place where you feel relaxed and comfortable. Notice all the details of your chosen place, including pleasant sounds and smells. Or change your mental “channel” by reading a good book or playing relaxing music to create a sense of peace and tranquility.
- Take a warm bath or shower. Wash away the stress and give yourself some time by yourself to reflect and quiet the mind. Soaking in the bathtub can make you feel like you are a world away from your reality.
- Use aromatherapy. Originating in ancient China, aromatherapy is based on the healing properties of plants; from which concentrated aromatic oils are extracted. The vapors of these “essential oils” are then inhaled and carried through the bloodstream, which controls the release of hormones and emotions.
- Care for a pet. Petting an animal can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure.
- Keep a journal. One strategy that many people have found effective in coping with stress is keeping a journal, sometimes referred to as a “stress diary”. Writing thoughts down is a good way to put things in perspective. Putting your worries into words may help you see that you don’t have that much to worry about, or it may help you get organized and manage your stress, rather than let it manage you. A good way to do the diary is to list what things are bothering you or that need to be done, describe how you plan to cope with each item and evaluate how you respond now to the things bothering you. Are your responses realistic?
Professional Help for Stress Management
There’s a fine line between feeling stressed out while still being able to function effectively, and the debilitating phenomenon we think of as burnout or breakdown. The difference is between handling your stress on your own, and being unable to figure out what to do because the pressures of life have become so overwhelming. It is time to seek professional advice if you:
- Feel the stress affecting your health.
- Feel that it will never end.
- Feel so desperate that you think about quitting your job, running away, taking a drug over-dose, or injuring yourself.
- Feel depressed, sad, tearful, or that life is not worth living.
- Lose your appetite and find it difficult to sleep.
- Are managing your stress by eating, sleeping, drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking, or using recreational drugs.
- Have worries, feelings, and thoughts that are difficult to talk about.
- Hear voices telling you what to do
Taken from: The North Dakota Caregiver Project NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University Home Instead Senior Care A Practical Guide to Caring for Caregivers, American Academy of Family Physicians