It is widely understood that stress is a natural part of life. When stress is linked to an important goal it can give us the energy required to complete an important task or cope with a demanding situation. Yet when occasional stress becomes chronic and severe, as it does for many caregivers, it can have negative effects on our psychological and physical health.
Health Quality Ontario (2018) notes that 26% of unpaid caregivers for long-term home care clients experienced continued distress, anger or depression in their caregiving role. This number jumps to 43% for caregivers providing more than ten hours of caregiving per week (CIHI, 2015). Given that approximately 8.1 million (or 1 in 4) Canadians are caregivers, caregiver stress is a significant health issue for many Canadians and one that will increase as the population ages.
So how does caregiver stress develop? We develop caregiver stress when our caregiving situation places demands on us that exceed our resources and ability (actual or perceived) to cope.
There are many specific factors that can lead to caregiver stress including the following:
- high physical and emotional demands of caregiving;
- difficulty adjusting to the role of caregiver;
- having to assume responsibility for additional household and financial responsibilities;
- lack of support from either family or community services;
- sleep disturbance;
- disruption or loss of work/income;
- and having to care for both children and parents.
What follows are some suggestions for managing caregiver stress, and in the process, to improving your caregiver situation.
Learn to Recognize Stress
Effective stress management requires that we learn to identify how stress is manifesting in our lives. Muscle tension or pain, sleep disturbance, nutritional or weight problems, decreased and/or disrupted work performance, decreased social connection, psychological suffering (e.g., anxiety and depression), and increased irritability/impatience are common symptoms of stress. Many caregivers also report frequent headaches, fatigue, being more prone to colds and exacerbation of pre-existing health conditions. If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms for an extended period, then contacting your GP is the first and most important step to reducing your stress level. Your GP may also refer you to other health professionals or specialists if recommended.
One of the most important skills we can bring to what stresses us is acceptance. Acceptance does not mean giving up or simply saying to ourselves “that’s life.” Instead, it is an open-eyed acknowledgment of the situation with a spirit of non-resistance, that we compassionately allow the stressful situation into our awareness without suppressing, resisting or avoiding how we think and feel. This kind of acceptance is a mindset that allows us to see and experience our emotions and thoughts clearly, drop the fight with what we’re experiencing and open to new possibilities.
Learning to not resist or avoid stress is a practice. And just like other skills, the more we practice, the more effective we become at it. Developing an acceptance mindset also gives us more energy for healthy coping because we’re no longer expending precious energy on fighting the reality of our situation or our feelings. Instead, we find space to breathe and open to new approaches that allow us to deal with things as they are, not as we’d wish or expect them to be.
Our ability to cope with the ongoing, multiple demands of caregiving is directly linked to how well we take care of ourselves. Self-care involves many activities including the following:
- eating a nutritious diet;
- good sleep habits;
- regular exercise as time allows;
- respite breaks;
- emotional and social connection;
- and practicing some form of relaxation, hobby or other activity of interest.
Just as many caregiving tasks are on a schedule (e.g., giving medication), self-care activities should have a schedule that you adhere to. A daily walk or time outside for fresh air, a few hours out for coffee with a friend, or listening to music should all be built into your weekly schedule as time permits. Doing so will significantly reduce your stress and maintain your quality of life.
Self-care also involves tending to our emotional garden and maintaining social connection with both family and friends. This means that we find ways to express what we’re feeling, particularly negative emotions, receive validation for these feelings and take steps to reach out to others for support, whether from family, friends, a mental health professional or a community-based organization.
Self-care IS caring for others. When you attend consistently and wisely to your own wellbeing you are ensuring you can care well for others.
Remember: the first step to decreasing stress in caregiving is to acknowledge it and then give yourself permission to reach out for support.