Chances are, if you’re a caregiver, you know all too well how easy it is to forget to take care of yourself. When was the last time you took a few hours to relax, clear your mind, and do something just for you?
If it’s been a while, you’re not alone—it’s natural for a caregiver to forget about their personal needs. After all, the very definition of being a caregiver includes making one sacrifice after another to put someone else’s needs first.
Providing personal care for another person is truly an act of kindness, love, support, and loyalty, especially when the recipient is unable to express their gratitude. When the recipient is a family member, spouse, or friend, there is a strong emotional and personal bond, intensifying the experience for all parties involved.
Caregivers find themselves constantly devoting time and effort to helping others—but along the way, caregivers are also risking their own emotional, mental, and physical health.
In this article, we’ll look at the unique benefits and challenges faced by caregivers, show you how to recognize signs of stress, address common misconceptions, and outline a few simple, effective tips for caregivers to keep themselves healthy and happy.
Benefits of Caregiving
Although caregiving comes with its own set of challenges, there are plenty of genuine benefits that caregivers can receive from helping another person.
In fact, a caregiver health effects study published by the Society of Behavioral Medicine found that even when demands and distress intensified, about one-third of caregivers still reported positive effects.
These included increased self-esteem, feeling valued and needed, experiencing a deeper meaning for their lives, learning new skills, and strengthening personal relationships.
As the American Journal of Nursing points out, strengthening personal and social relationships is often a key benefit of caregiving. Those in supportive social roles are often happier, healthier, and live as much as five years longer.
Of course, the trick is to find a balance between caring for others and caring for yourself. Despite the benefits of caregiving, neglecting to nurture your own emotional and physical needs can have serious consequences.
Unique Caregiving Challenges
Caregivers face a multitude of unique challenges, but two of the most significant come from maintaining balance and managing stress, detailed below.
It almost goes without saying that caregivers characteristically struggle with creating a healthy balance between work, caregiving, and their personal lives. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance®, 44 million Americans are actively providing unpaid support, meaning that caregivers must have other means to pay the bills. Balancing time spent at work with time spent caregiving is a challenge experienced by young and old caregivers alike, and can also cause them to experience:
Delaying life events like marriage or buying a home
Putting education on hold or dropping out
Difficulties securing employment
For caregivers that must also juggle relationships between their children, significant other, friendships, and family, striking a balance becomes increasingly difficult, leading to increased levels of stress and frustration.
Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives, but caregivers are particularly susceptible to its negative side effects.
In fact, despite the wide range of benefits, caregiving is such an innately stressful experience that it is used as a model for studies on long-term effects of chronic stress.
According to the American Journal of Nursing, caregiving is stressful by nature because:
It creates and supports prolonged periods of both physical and mental stress. It can be highly unpredictable and is rarely controllable. It sparks secondary stressors in personal areas like work, family, and romantic relationships. It often requires high levels of focused care, or vigilance
Stress can affect your body, thought process, and lifestyle in surprising ways. In fact, prolonged stress can contribute to serious physical issues, like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Emotionally, prolonged stress can have serious consequences for caregivers. In fact, a 2006 study estimates that 40-70 percent of caregivers demonstrate significant signs of clinical depression resulting from untreated stress.
How to Recognize Signs of Stress
The most common physical signs of stress include:
Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
Headaches or muscle tension
Changes in libido
Overeating or under-eating
Irritability or Forgetfulness
Increase in drinking or smoking
Anxiety or restlessness
Common Caregiver Misconceptions
By nature, caregivers tend to be giving, nurturing individuals, with a genuine desire to help another person.
These are wonderful qualities, but they can also result in deeply-rooted misconceptions about roles and responsibilities, making it difficult for caregivers to remember to practice caregiver self-care.
Some of these misconceptions include:
Setting boundaries or spending time and energy on themselves is selfish. Being seen as a failure for taking time off or asking for help. Being judged as a poor caregiver or as inadequate. Feeling as though they receive more love, attention, and respect by sacrificing their own comfort. No one else will step in to help if they don’t. Caregiving takes up too much time to focus on themselves
These fears and misconceptions have valid roots, but it’s important to remember the importance of balance. Each person has their own identity, unique goals, relationships, and an entire life to participate in outside of caregiving.
Adopting these misconceptions often leads caregivers to experience unnecessary frustration and stress by taking on too much, attempting to controlling situations that are inherently uncontrollable, and trying to achieve unattainable goals.
How can you get around these pitfalls?
Caregivers must be willing to be honest with themselves and identify when they are falling into these patterns of thought. What is holding you back from taking care of yourself? What are your hidden—or not so hidden—fears and anxieties?
Once you have recognized the common misconceptions that you are subconsciously falling into, you’ll be much more open to start implementing the strategies listed below in our expert tips for caregivers.
5 Expert Tips for Caregivers to Start Caring for Themselves Today
1. Join a Community of Other Caregivers
Caregivers experience wholly unique challenges and frustrations, and it can help to share these with a community of like-minded people who have had similar experiences.
For caregivers, finding a place in a community can help caregivers feel less isolated, get practical advice, discover new resources, and simply feel relieved that all emotions—both positive and negative—are completely normal.
Check your local hospitals or community centers for caregiver groups. Use the Eldercare Locator to find a variety of local services for older adults and their families. Caregiver Connect, created by Family Caregiver Alliance®, connects caregivers across the country to support groups, up-to-date research, newsletters, and even a forum for caregivers to share their personal stories. For those that care for individuals with Alzheimer’s or Dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association can help caregivers find local support groups in their area
2. Know Your Limits
Everyone has their limits when it comes to how much time, energy, and emotion they can give without compromising their own happiness. Unfortunately, caregivers often don’t communicate this or feel guilty for even considering that they might need limits.
Communicating your boundaries to doctors, family members, friends, and anyone else involved can go a long way in alleviating present and future stress.
If you’re stuck on how to start defining your limitations, here are a few good ideas:
Be honest about what you are willing to do. Consider your personal goals and whether your level of caregiving will get in the way. Make a list of caregiving needs and identify any you are uncomfortable with
3. Reach Out for Support
Asking for help is difficult for anyone, but especially when it comes to caregivers. It’s a natural inclination to want to be the sole source of care and support, but it’s also a huge (and unnecessary) stressor.
Once you know your personal boundaries and limitations, you can look to family, friends, neighbors, and health professionals for assistance filling in the gaps.
Being hesitant to approach friends and family members for help is natural. Many times, people want to help but simply don’t know how, especially when it comes to caregiving.
If you can clearly identify areas where you need support and small ways to contribute, you’ll make it much easier for the people around you to volunteer their help. Whether it’s calling once a week, stopping by to mow the lawn, or dropping off a homecooked meal, every little bit helps.
If you prefer to reach outside your group of family and friends, there are plenty of alternative sources of support, including:
A therapist, social worker, or counselor
Support groups at a local hospital
Organizations for the specific disability or illness
Community health care, personal care, or transportation services
4. Validate Your Situation & Your Feelings
Caregivers tend to neglect their personal situation and emotions—but bottling everything up is a surefire way to create and magnify stress.
Acknowledging personal struggles, emotions, fears, and worries can alleviate stress, help you gain a better understanding of your role as a caregiver, and even identify boundaries, skills, and ideas you couldn’t see before.
Some find it helpful to keep a daily journal to record their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Others prefer to talk one-on-one with a close friend, family member, or counselor that can understand what they are going through.
Whether you choose to start writing, initiate a conversation, or both, having your voice heard and expressing yourself free from judgement or censorship is invaluable to your mental and emotional health.
5. Focus on Stress Relief
Just as everyone reacts to stress in different ways, everyone has their own unique ways to cope with and dispel feelings of anxiety.
Part of proper caregiver self-care means finding effective, manageable ways to relieve stress, relax, and set aside time just for yourself. If you don’t already have a stress relief system in place, keep an open mind and consider trying any of the following methods:
Reading a book
Writing in a journal
Listening to music
Visit with friends or family
Use essential oils or light a scented candle
Limit caffeine intake
Watch a funny movie or see a comedy show
Practice deep breathing
Spend time with your pet (if you have one)
Spend time outdoors
Exercise is also a great way to get your body moving, release endorphins, and relieve tension. Getting out of the house and taking in the fresh air—or simply a new change of scenery at the gym—can also be a wonderful stress relief in itself.
Consider trying yoga, jogging, lifting weights, or simply walking around the block a few times a week.
There are endless methods of relieving stress to choose from, varying from a night out dancing with friends to simply making dietary changes. Whatever you choose, make sure you keep caregiver self-care in mind—don’t let caregiving duties distract you from taking care of yourself.
Forgetting to take care of the caregiver can have serious consequences for all parties involved, not only for yourself, but for those that you are providing care for.
No matter what level of care you are providing, it’s important to ensure that the responsibility of caring for another person does not eclipse your own basic emotional, mental, and physical needs.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that you are not alone—and even better, that there are plenty of simple, actionable ways to start practicing great caregiver self-care today.
Start paying attention to signs of stress, embrace the inherent challenges of caregiving, and use the caregiver tips above to ensure that you are providing the best care possible for yourself and for those that depend on you.