Caregiver Burnout, Stress, & How to Prevent It

According to Pew Research Center, there are more than 40 million adults in America providing care to a loved one. While care giving is rewarding, the role is full of responsibility and naturally prioritizes the person receiving care. As a result, caregivers are often left feeling worn down, frustrated, alone, and irritable. WebMD defines caregiver burnout as “a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude – from positive and caring to negative and concerned.”

When does caregiver burnout occur?

Caregivers must master a delicate balance of caring for others and managing their own self-care. When caregivers spread themselves too thin – emotionally, mentally, or physically – they can experience that feeling of weariness and fatigue.

Some examples of overexertion include but are not limited to:

  • Taking on too many shifts
  • Providing care that is physically or mentally challenging or very complex
  • Feeling hopeless when working for individuals with terminal, progressive, or chronic illnesses
  • Frustration from a lack of resources in managing your loved one’s overall care

In expending all their time and effort towards caring for their loved one, they end up neglecting their own needs out of exhaustion, lack of time, or stress. When the tolls of providing care are left unchecked, it can make caregivers vulnerable to a wide range of issues, from depression to anxiety. When caregivers face burnout, both parties – the caregiver and care recipient – ultimately suffer.

Caregiver Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue: What’s the difference?

While caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue may overlap in signs and symptoms, the two are fundamentally different. Caregiver burnout develops gradually, is generally less severe, and results largely from exhaustion. On the other hand, compassion fatigue tends to occur suddenly, where the root cause lies in “over-caring” for others.

You can think of compassion fatigue as shouldering the burdens of others on yourself too heavily. Empathy and sensitivity to your loved one’s health situation contributes to the onset of this serious fatigue. Compassion fatigue, in particular, is characterized as a secondary traumatic stress disorder; an important distinction from caregiver burnout. Caregivers, who are extremely familiar with their loved one’s condition and deep in providing support consequently become susceptible to their loved one’s traumatic experiences. Compassion fatigue is not limited to care giving – work environments where there is an abundance of stress, strain, and trauma also encounter the disorder. People who are nurses, counselors, child protection workers, and others may fall on the compassion fatigue spectrum at some point as well.

Because compassion fatigue stems from empathy and emotional understanding, the disorder can manifest itself in completely withdrawing from your loved one altogether. Those who fall victim to compassion fatigue suddenly feel indifferent, impatient, disinterested, and insensitive to the people around them, especially when it comes to their loved one receiving care. This outcome is essentially the opposite of care giving, and it can be dangerous to the person who is relying on their caregiver for support.

What are the symptoms?

Identifying the signs of caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue can help caregivers recognize when they need to step away and take time to recharge. Know the warning signs:

  • Feeling angry, irritable, and overreacting
  • Feeling overwhelmed, strained, and lacking energy
  • Feeling impatient, insensitive, and lacking compassion
  • Feeling trapped and daydreaming of disappearing or running away
  • Feeling isolated, hopeless, and adrift
  • Withdrawing from loved ones, friends, and activities you usually enjoy
  • Experiencing changes in sleep routine, appetite, or weight
  • Experiencing physical, mental, emotional exhaustion
  • Having urges to hurt yourself or others
  • Abusing alcohol, sleep medication, or prescription medications
  • Getting sick frequently
  • Resenting, neglecting, or mistreating your care recipient

How do I prevent caregiver burnout?

Staying proactive and self aware is vital to avoid burnout. Managing your time, practicing self care, and giving yourself permission to catch a break is essential both for yourself and for your loved one. Here are some strategies to follow for caregiver burnout prevention:

Schedule Personal Time: It’s essential that care giving does not consume your entire life. Block off a little bit of time each day for you and you only. Whether it’s personal reflection, relaxing, catching up with a friend, or doing something you enjoy, take the time to do what YOU want. Having that dedicated time acts as a reminder that you are not defined by your care giving role and it provides a healthy outlet to center yourself.

Maintain Your Hygiene & Health: When we’re deep in our care giving role, it’s common to push your health needs to the side in the process. Don’t let your self care slip, especially since your health and hygiene are aspects of your life that you can control. These habits seem small, but when we stay on top of our personal cleanliness and health it makes a noticeable difference in how we feel day-to-day.

Connect With Others: When we start to feel ourselves going down the path of burnout, isolation is a slippery slope that can lead to feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. Rely on your social support system – reach out to trusted friends, family, support circles and networks to maintain your sense of community and connectedness. They can lend an ear and possibly help unload any burdens you’re experiencing.

Identify “Your Person”: Whether it’s a therapist, a best friend, or your significant other, have a point person to check in with about how you’re feeling. They can help keep you on track mentally by reminding you of the important work you’re doing and pulling you out of the care giving bubble.

Prioritize Organization: Getting organized is an easy step to preventing burnout. When things are muddled and untidy, it can feel daunting and add to your stress. By putting together a simple to-do list or calendar, you can wrap your head around priorities and getting things done in an orderly manner.

Remember Your Why: When you’re feeling worn down and questioning if all your work is worth it, remind yourself why you started in the first place. Maybe you know your loved one deserves the best care, or maybe you know they would do the same if roles were reversed. Whatever the reason, keeping true to your “why” helps provide perspective and can push you to keep going when times become difficult.

How do I recover from caregiver burnout?

The path to recovering from burnout varies from person to person. What symptoms are most noticeable to you? By understanding why you’re experiencing burnout, you can pinpoint the exact help you need to recuperate. For starters, we recommend seeking respite. Find someone to take over your care giving role while you take some time off, even if only for a little while, to rest and check in with yourself.

Whatever you’re experiencing on the care giving journey, we understand there are ups and downs with a role that requires so much compassion, energy, and time. To bring our best selves to the role of care giving, it’s essential to understand when you need a break and when you need support.