Caregiver Stress – What it Is and How to Get it Under Control

Caregiver stress is the name for a type of stress that affects caregivers specifically. It is characterized by a state of exhaustion, rage and/or guilt that can result from looking after someone who is chronically ill or otherwise dependent. If you look after an elderly or disabled relative or friend on a regular basis and you are feeling burned out and depressed, then you might very well be suffering from caregiver stress and should look to get it addressed as soon as possible.

What Causes Caregiver Stress?

Caregiver stress is a type of chronic stress and like all chronic stress is the result of ongoing exposure to a ‘stressor’.

A stressor can be defined as any cause of stress whether that is an impending deadline, exam or interview or whether it is debt. The body has developed a set of responses to stressors which include the likes of increased heart rate, contracted muscles and increased focus. All these things are intended to help us survive in the face of immediate physical threat and general the response – known as fight or flight – drives resources away from functions like digestion and the immune system and instead sends it to the brain and muscles.

If you are facing a short-term threat, then all these responses are actually highly adaptive and very useful in aiding survival. However, when the stressor is something chronic and ongoing, the response will persist for too long placing a strain on the body that can ultimately lead to depression and illness.

In the case of caregiver stress, the stressor is the ‘situation’. It’s important to recognize that the stressor is not the family member or the friend – a belief that can often a cause guilt and stress in itself – but rather the fact that they are ill and unable to look after themselves.

Those who care for others on a regular basis will be placed under intense demands on an ongoing basis. You might worry about your loved one whenever they are left on their own, you might feel you can’t leave the house to do things you’d like to do and you might find yourself getting tired of having to look after someone all the time. There are even financial considerations that must be taken into account when looking at caregiver stress.

Being a caregiver is not only physically tiring – often involving a lot of lifting, shopping and travel; but it is also emotionally stressful and draining. Not only will you find yourself feeling sympathetic to and worried about your loved one, but you are likely to also experience periods of time where you argue with your dependent.

The Relationship With the Dependent

One of the things that often gets overlooked in cases of caregiver stress is the complex relationship between the caregiver and their dependent. On the one hand, a caregiver is likely to love their dependent in order to have given up so much of their own independence and freedom to look after them. At the same time though, there might also be feelings of resentment or anger towards the person who – through no fault of their own – has effectively ruined their life.

When you spend a large amount of your time, energy and money looking after someone, you might expect them to be hugely grateful to you and even indebted to you. Rightly or wrongly, you will probably feel as though you are entitled to their thanks and their appreciation and might expect them to regularly say thank you or provide remuneration.

In reality though, the gratitude may not be so forthcoming. This is particularly true if the dependent suffers from mental health problems in which case they might not recognize the full extent of what you’re doing for them or what the implications are.

Even if your dependent has no history of mental health problems though, they themselves will likely be frustrated and guilty at being a ‘burden’. This can then result in them becoming resentful towards their caregiver.

Meanwhile, for the physically disabled, even the smallest imperfection can be enough to drive them to distraction. If they are unable to move, then an ‘unplumped cushion’ will end up being something that stares them in the face all day – without them being able to do anything about it. Thus if the caregiver comes in and collapses on the couch, then leaves without straightening it all out, this can be the cause of much animosity. This can result in arguments which greatly upset both parties and contribute to guilt and caregiver stress further.

Of course the relationship between the caregiver and the dependent might also have been complicated to begin with. If you are looking after a parent then you might on some level be seeking approval, while they might on some level be expecting you to ‘return the favor’ after they raised you. If it’s a romantic partner you are looking after, then sex can also complicate matters. In some cases perhaps one of you even feels to ‘blame’ for the situation you’re in. Many different factors can come to the surface in these highly emotionally charged situations and make life more difficult for both parties.

What to Do About Caregiver Stress

For all these reasons, caregiver stress is all too common. For most of us, looking after ourselves is stressful and tiring enough. If you then need to cook for your loved one, help them to get dressed, take them shopping and take them to the doctor – ever day – you can end up exhausted. This then prevents you from doing the things you want to do, causes your own relationships and career to suffer and eats into your free time. On top of this you might feel unappreciated and be arguing regularly with the person you’re caring for. Is it any wonder that caregiver stress is such a big issue?

When asking for advice from friends and loved ones, what you will hear most commonly in all likelihood is that you should send your loved one into a home, hire extra care or get more assistance from other family members. If you can do this then you absolutely should, for the sake of both of you – especially if you are very stressed.

But while this advice sounds good in theory, it often is not that easy. Getting care can be very expensive and some dependents will be resistant to the idea. Meanwhile, the same emotionally complex situation that leads to so many arguments might mean you feel ‘trapped’ in your role.

If you can’t change the situation then, you need to acknowledge that you are experiencing caregiver stress and take measures to protect yourself. Setting clear boundaries can help a lot, as can haven honest and frank discussions with your dependent about why those boundaries are there. Taking breaks is also important, as is having some kind of ‘outlet’ whether that be a weekly trip to the pub with a friend or a gym session twice a week. You should have at least one place that you can retreat to where you turn your phone off. Taking regular holidays is also important – and while you might feel stressed during these and while your dependent might not like it, it is once again important for the health and safety of both you and your dependent. If you burn out, then you won’t be any use to them.

Again, all this is easier said than done and if you’re experience caregiver stress symptoms you might not feel ready to just ‘set boundaries’. In this case the first step should be to seek help from a cognitive behavioral therapist or another type of therapist/counsellor. They will help to teach you the skills and cognitive tools you need to combat your stress and to think about your situation from a more detached and logical point of view.

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Keith Hillman

Keith Hillman is a full time writer specializing in psychology as well as the broader health niche. He has a BSc degree in psychology from Surrey University, where he particularly focused on neuroscience and biological psychology. Since then, he has written countless articles on a range of topics within psychology for numerous of magazines and websites. He continues to be an avid reader of the latest studies and books on the subject, as well as self-development literature.

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