Coping with Caregiver Stress: How to Prevent Burnout

Setting aside time for yourself can fend off burnout before it happens.

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Burnout is a risk for anyone who experiences high levels of stress at their job. For roles that ensure the well-being of another person—such as for caregivers—that risk may be especially high.

“Caregivers feel stressed out, unhappy, angry at their loved ones, sad, afraid, lonely,” says Nathan E. Goldstein, MD, palliative care specialist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. “Those are all normal reactions to be having to the stress of caregiving.”

Without an outlet, that stress can lead to burnout. Caregiver burnout is when long-term stress builds up and you feel like you can’t meet the constant demands of caring for someone with a medical condition.

When you have caregiver burnout, you start to lose motivation, and your own health deteriorates. You might feel “trapped” in your role, and your compassion toward the care recipient might start to slip. You may find yourself overreacting to small accidents, resenting or even neglecting your loved one, or showing signs of depression.

Factors That Lead to Caregiver Burnout

By nature, people who are caregivers for a loved one with a medical condition tend to be selfless and compassionate. This can make them prone to forgetting to take care of themselves.

Caregiving can also be demanding and overwhelming. Caregivers might struggle with:

  • Losing personal time to socialize or pursue their hobbies
  • Feeling grief while watching the changes to the care recipient’s health and personality
  • Balancing caregiving with other roles (as a parent, spouse, or employee)
  • Getting enough sleep or relaxation
  • Managing finances if they are not working or are working less
  • Feeling overwhelmed, incompetent, or unappreciated
  • Or blaming themselves if the care recipient’s health shows no improvement.

Tips to Prevent Caregiver Burnout

“If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to take care of your loved one,” says Dr. Goldstein. It doesn’t help you or your loved one if you think of yourself as a martyr.

To cope with caregiver stress, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Exercise regularly. If possible, find ways to include the care recipient.
  • Stay involved in hobbies or find new activities you enjoy.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Journal the day-to-day progression of your loved one’s symptoms. Journaling “is a focused way of sharing the progression of what’s happening with the patient, and also identifying the areas you need help with,” says Theresa Altilio, ACSW, LCSW, clinical social worker at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.
  • Meditate or find other stress-relief techniques.
  • Get support from friends, family, neighbors, volunteers, or professional services. Look for people who can fill in while you take breaks, or for people whom you can vent to and confide in.
  • Take breaks. Try and get “moments of relaxation, where even if you just take five minutes, that that can be very helpful in terms of replenishing,” says Altilio.
  • Manage your expectations and stay realistic, which can help prevent perfectionism and frustration.
  • Become informed about your loved one’s condition so you know what to expect.
  • Keep up with your own doctor appointments.
  • Consider seeking out a therapist or support group.

Even if it feels selfish, prioritizing yourself sometimes is good for both you and the care recipient. Putting up with burnout too long can make symptoms worse, so being proactive about managing stress can have long-term benefits.