Strategies for Managing Your Stress and Health as a Caregiver
If you’re a caregiver for a spouse or partner, child living with a serious illness or chronic condition, or aging parent or family member, you have a lot on your plate. And while taking care of family members who need you can be rewarding, it can also be very stressful. Unfortunately, one thing caregivers often don’t make time for is taking care of themselves and managing that stress. As stress builds, it can not only increase the likelihood of burnout, but also the risk for mental and physical health problems, including depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, heart disease, diabetes, and a weakened immune system.
The signs that stress is taking a toll on your mental and physical health can include:
- Feeling tired most of the time
- Insomnia or sleeping significantly more than usual
- Frequent headaches or aches and pains you didn’t used to have
- Catching colds and other contagious illnesses more frequently
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Gaining or losing a noticeable amount of weight
- A shorter temper or lower frustration level than usual
- Problems concentrating
Caring for the caregiver
If the stress of caregiving is causing you to experience any of the signs above, these strategies can help you manage your stress and take steps to stay healthy while you care for your loved ones:
- Ask for help. When most of your time is devoted to caregiving, it can be more difficult to get other important tasks done. Ask family and friends to run errands, cook meals, go grocery shopping, or stay with your loved one so you can have some time to yourself. You may also want to explore respite services, which provide a trained caregiver in your home or outside the home.
- Make time for your health. Stay up to date on check-ups with your doctor and dentist and screenings like mammograms or colonoscopies. If you’re living with a chronic health condition like diabetes, heart disease, or respiratory disease, make sure you take your medications regularly and see your doctor as recommended.
- Get regular exercise, choose healthy foods, and get enough sleep. Even though your caregiving responsibilities and stress may make you tired and low energy, make exercise a priority. Exercise not only helps diffuse stress it also helps you build strength and endurance and keep your heart, muscles, and joints healthier. Taking part in just 30 minutes of physical activity a day will help and you can break it up into three 10 minute segments and still reap the same health benefits. While takeout or skipping meals can be tempting when you’re tired and stressed, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, healthy proteins and fats, and fiber helps boost your immune system, increases your energy level, and can prevent the health problems that frequent fast food can cause like weight gain and higher cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Don’t skimp on sleep to try to get more done. Try to get about eight hours of sleep a night. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk with your doctor and try relaxation techniques like meditation or breathing exercises.
- Stay connected. Staying in touch with friends and family, whether by getting together for a chat or a short walk or just talking on the phone regularly, can provide important emotional support and lower the risk of depression and anxiety. You may also want to join a caregiver support group in your community.