Self Care for Caregivers: Preventing Caregiver Burnout
How to take after yourself while you take care of loved ones
A few years ago, I supervised a mental health helpline, and one of the things that struck me was the number of calls that came from people who needed support in dealing with the stresses of being a carer.
Carers.org defines a carer as “anyone who cares, unpaid, for a friend or family member who due to illness, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction cannot cope without their support.”
In the UK, it’s estimated there are 6.5 million carers who are doing everything from household tasks such as cooking and cleaning to personal care such as bathing and dressing and carrying those they look after.
The biggest issues facing carers
There are different feelings that come with the role of carer. Some positive ones, such as a sense of pride and an increased appreciation for life, and other less pleasant ones such as guilt and overwhelm.
Being a carer is often a financial burden due to the cost of looking after another person without pay. Many carers have to give up their jobs and survive solely on government support which is often inadequate. There is also often the need to purchase expensive equipment and aids when looking after an elderly person or someone with special needs.
Mental health stress
More often than not, on the helpline, the callers who called for support for themselves ended up talking about those they were looking after. They had gotten so used to suppressing their own needs, that it became impossible to talk about themselves without feeling selfish or guilty. Many carers suffer from depression and anxiety, due to loneliness, financial strain and the heavy weight of responsibility. They are also less likely to seek help as they downplay their own issues by comparing themselves to those whom they care for.
Isolation and loneliness
For many carers, finding time to spend with friends and take part in activities is one of the biggest challenges, as any spare time is spent looking after someone else. As a result, friendships and romantic relationships often suffer.
Deterioration of physical health
Many carers devote up to 50 hours a week to helping others, and neglect their own health by missing out on sleep, exercise, and eating well.
How to look after yourself
- Prioritize self-care
This is the most important step but also the most challenging for the reasons discussed above. It is essential to remember that if you are not in good mental or physical shape, you are no good to anyone, especially the person that is being cared for. Self-care can be anything that makes you feel better and as wide-ranging as getting a massage, reading a book or going for regular walks.
- Talk to someone
Talking to someone objective without judgment will help you organize your feelings and support you through the most difficult aspects of being a carer. You can talk to an online therapist or find a counselor in your area if you would like to face to face support.
- Peer support
Talking to other people who are going through the same thing can feel like a tremendous relief. It can never be underestimated the amount of benefit peer to peer support gives in situations where you feel alone and misunderstood. It is also useful for getting information about financial support and self-care strategies.
- Stress reduction apps
Meditation, CBT and guided relaxation are just some of the techniques for stress reduction. You don’t have to devote hours either. Apps such as calm, headspace and pacifica are renowned for their innovative 10 min meditation sessions and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
- Get some sleep
Despite the myriad articles discussing the importance of good sleep, it is still something many of us take for granted. Not only are many of us not sleeping enough hours, but our quality of sleep is also often quite poor due to electronics, caffeine and heavy dinners. Good sleep hygiene involves avoiding electronics an hour before bed and limiting daytime naps.
- Talk to your doctor
It’s all too easy to ignore aches and pains when we are focused on someone else. However, it is important to get regular check-ups and talk to your doctor when you are feeling unwell. Your doctor might pick up on things you may have missed such as signs of stress and may refer you to a therapist, remind you about the flu vaccine or simply make some suggestions on how to improve your health.