Learning to cope with caregiver stress
By Stacey Colino
As we enter middle age, more and more of us find ourselves transitioning from taking care of young children to caring for aging parents or loved ones. As if adding another layer of responsibility to your life isn't challenging enough, new research shows that coping with caregiver stress can have an overwhelming impact on your physical health and emotional well-being:
- According to a recent study at Pennsylvania State University, family members who care for relatives with dementia frequently experience intense stress that can lead to emotional overload or depression.
- Researchers from the University of South Florida found that caregiver stress is associated with a higher risk of stroke.
- A study at the University of Kentucky found that caregivers who frequently worry about their loved ones have a lower immune response to a flu shot than their worry-free peers.
- A study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that stress related to serious illness of a loved one leads to depression and higher levels of heartburn severity.
"Providing care to someone you love is gratifying, but it's also debilitating to see the person suffering and not be able to alleviate that suffering -- and that leads to caregivers suffering," says Barry J. Jacobs, a doctor of psychology and medical educator at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pa., and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers.
"Plus, for many people, there's a lot of ambivalence: They want to provide care and they know it's the right thing to do, but they wish they were free of it. Going back and forth between these two feelings creates a sense of constant tension and duress."
Warning signs that caregiver stress is taking a high toll:
- Unusual irritability or edginess
- Sense of being overwhelmed by responsibilities
- An enduring sense of dread or guilt
- Constant experience of tiredness or unhappiness
- Nagging self-doubt and self-blame
- Problems with sleep or appetite
- Use of drugs or alcohol for self-medication
How to Cope
If you have any of the above symptoms, your body and mind are crying out for help -- and relief. To cope with caregiver stress and get it under control, try the following:
Call yourself a caregiver. "If you can accept that you're taking on that role, you're accepting that what you are doing involves some risk to you," says Jacobs. The next step: Take advantage of support that's available from family members, neighbors and your community.
Educate yourself. "It's very important to learn about your loved one's illness and prognosis, and to take a planned approach to caregiving," Jacobs says. "Caregiving is not a sprint; it's a marathon. Learn what kinds of ups and downs to expect -- and what kind of replenishment you'll need to stay the course."
Schedule "me" time. Find someone to relieve you so you can go to the gym a few times a week, have lunch with a friend each week, and guard protected time each day for treasured hobbies. Carving out sacred time to do these activities will replenish your energy.
Avoid ruminating. While it's smart to engage in problem-solving mode when challenges arise, "catastrophizing or ruminating about the situation doesn't help anybody," Jacobs says.
Develop a contingency plan. "Do the best that you can -- but give yourself permission to make different choices if it gets to be too much for you," Jacobs says. "At some point, that may mean asking a sibling to step up and help, taking six months off, or putting a loved one in institutionalized care." After all, it's crucial to take good care of yourself as well as your loved one.
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman's Day, Self, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal.
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