No one person is immune from stress. Unfortunately, anxiety, overwhelm, and exhaustion have become the norm in our modern-day culture. In fact, stress has become so rampant in our society that on any given day, many people find themselves sleep-deprived, overworked, and running on empty. Stress can be a result of any number of things: jobs, relationships, family, the list goes on. But caregivers also experience a unique kind of stress: the stress related to the consistent giving of one’s self to others. Whether you’re a professional caregiver working full time in healthcare, or you support a sick or elderly family member at home, caregivers give both physical and emotional energy to their role and as a result, there’s a high risk of burnout within that line of work.
So what does “caregiver stress” look like? Sometimes it can manifest physically in the form of weariness, physical pain, or even financial strain. Other times, stress can present itself more internally in the form of what’s known as “compassion fatigue.” That’s irritability, lack of motivation, and in some extreme cases, depression. Because of the intense nature of caregiver work, it is crucial that self-care be encouraged and normalized by employers, friends, and family members of individuals in this line of work.
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According to staff at the Mayo Clinic Health System, caregivers run the risk of neglecting their own wellbeing when they’re so focused on the wellbeing of others. Therefore, self-care plays an important role in maintaining one’s physical and mental wellness.
Self-care can be implemented both internally and externally. External self-care focuses more on coping skills and relaxation techniques, often done in the form of activities, anything from deep breathing exercises, going for walks, listening to calming or uplifting music. Self-care strategies such as these can be utilized daily. Even just taking a brief moment for a few deep breaths can have lasting positive effects on both the mind and body. According to Harvard Medical School, taking slow, deep breaths into the very base of our belly increases our intake of oxygen and can result in the reduction of anxiety by lowering blood pressure, releasing muscle tension, and slowing down our heart rate. Therefore, deep breathing has the ability to decrease stress right there in the moment.
Other self-care activities include physical exercise and social connection. Having a friend, family member, or co-worker to go to for emotional support is a great way to release stress in a safe environment that feels free of judgment. If possible, incorporating time for exercise, adequate sleep, and maintaining healthy eating habits not only provides physical benefits but mood-enhancing benefits as well.
The other, and more commonly overlooked, form of self-care is internal. This often takes the form of setting boundaries. Whether these are boundaries you set for yourself or with others, being honest about your needs can help you maintain your health and wellbeing while still being of service to those you care for. Examples of boundaries can include communicating the amount of hours you’re willing to commit to each week, or even communicating how you expect to be spoken to or treated in your caregiver role. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to simply declare what days and hours they wish to work, but boundaries can also be established within our own selves by setting personal limits. Maybe that means only committing to a certain number of tasks each day, or maybe it means setting the goal of not engaging in negative self-talk. When you feel those thoughts arising saying, “I’m not doing enough”, or “I’m supposed to be the strong one, they’re the one who deserves help, not me” pause in that moment and counter that thought with statements such as, “I’m doing my best, my emotions are valid and I, too, am deserving of help and support.”
Remember, seeking help is another form of self-care. If you feel you’re in need of professional support, consider reaching out to a mental health professional, crisis hotline, or local support group for caregivers. If caregiving is your profession, consider reaching out to your employer to see what kinds of resources they may have available to employees. You are important. Your self-care is important. By taking care of yourself, it will only help increase your capacity to care for others, while also living a balanced and healthy life of your own.