It’s not easy being a Caregiver and if you keep at it long enough, you will really need to take care of yourself as well. Why? You need to help yourself to prevent burnout. It’s too easy to get caught up in the moment, knowing you are doing something worthwhile no matter how physically, psychologically and emotionally draining it may be. Sometimes, we do this informally for a loved one - and when our own minds and bodies start to pay the price, Caregivers in their utter devotion and sacrifice, might not even notice the toll they themselves are paying - until it is far, far too late.
So what can we do? Are you at risk for Caregiver burnout?
We can learn to spot the Caregiver burnout signs - whether in ourselves, or in other Caregivers. The second part is more important - because we may never be able to judge ourselves properly. We need friends, fellows, co-workers to see us as we truly are, because by the time we start showing signs of burnout, our own minds may be too brutalized and traumatized to see ourselves properly. Friends are our lifeline, Caregivers caring for each other. So, let’s just talk about the signs of Caregiver burnout and what we can do. There are many signs, and here are four of the big ones.
- Social Withdrawal
Do you find yourself withdrawing from friends and family? Are you avoiding things you loved to do, and cutting off connections with other people? Sometimes, we can get so busy with the often-urgent demands of caregiving, we tell ourselves "we're just busy". And little by little, like the frog in a slow-boiling pot, we start to close ourselves to the outside world. We stop talking to friends. The phone is almost never used. We stop showing up to gatherings. And people may take some time to notice that something is wrong. So check yourselves - who are your closest friends now, and who were your closest friends before you current caregiving arrangements? When was the last time you met up with your friends, and when was the last time you even spoke to them? If something bad happened to you, would they notice it immediately? Withdrawal is the greatest slow-burning problem, because it kills off the best anti-dote: friends. People who know you, and who know you well enough to sense when something goes wrong. Once these people are gradually removed, under the cover of reasons such as "busy with work", “lost interest” and "need more alone time", they stop noticing. And that is when a person can enter a very dangerous spiral - isolation and loneliness feeding each other in a vicious circle.
Look around you. Make sure someone can see if you're in burnout. You are devoted and loyal to your charges and patients, and you may feel guilty about taking a break. That is natural, but being alone and depressed, is not. Keep all your social channels open!
- Irritability and Hopelessness
This is another danger sign that “complements” social withdrawal. These things come in packages, and one leads to another. When your mind is in perpetual crisis mode, perceptions become extreme. It’s easy to end up swinging from being optimistic one moment, and then completely hopeless and pessimistic the next. It affects your mood, and can make you angry - angry enough to be snapping at people around.
Is this happening? Once a Caregiver starts behaving like this, it can trigger or reinforce the social withdrawal that is all too dangerous - this sort of thing cuts off your best lifeline and prevention method for burnout, namely, a good support circle of friends. So, don’t keep it all in. Find someone to talk to, someone with whom you can share your frustrations, your anxieties, your fear. This can dial down the tension quite a bit, and give you the mental recharge you need to sort out other problems!
- Beneficial Routines Stopped
This is related to withdrawal from social life, and missed medical appointments. The sheer workload of Caregivers may disrupt your life as you move mountains to care for someone. Many things we do by routine, which are beneficial to our holistic wellness, get disrupted. One of the most important ones, is exercise.
As a Caregiver, have you stopped your routine exercise, no matter how light it may be? Has it been discarded under the excuse that “my caregiving is strenuous enough and gives me all the exercise I need”? Snap out of it! Exercise is beneficial not only physically, but psychologically too - you need to devote your exercise time to focusing on the exercise activity. Withdrawal from this is deals you double damage - first, you lose a lifeline that helps stave off burnout and depression. Second, you lose the benefits that exercise brings, and any work-based substitute merely stresses you out even more.
Snap back to your routine as much as possible, or plan a new routine that meets your caregiving needs - and stick to it. Enforce a break mental as well as physical break every now and then - think of it as clearing your head and recharging for the long term! And don’t forget to keep a healthy diet, and go for any routine check-ups you need - who knows what they might detect early?
- Increased Illness
Getting stressed often leads you to catching just about any bug that comes your way. All the more if you ignore your exercise routine and lapse into an unhealthy diet, and isolate yourself from friends and spiral into anxiety and depression. Look back and ask yourself - are you falling sick more often, or more intensely, than usual? Are you getting more aches and pains, and more sniffles? The stresses faced by Caregivers can, over the long run, compromise the immune system. As a Caregiver, you can see this in your patients - but don’t forget to look in the mirror! Sickness can be a person’s body asking them to slow down - and that person may well be the Caregiver instead of the Careseeker (everybody is a potential Careseeker anyway).
So, do reflect on your own health and illness - it is an excellent self-check against Caregiver burnout. Better still if you have regular medical checkups or appointments - if you have missed any of them, that’s a good cue to think about whether you’ve been in burnout. And if you can’t decide, ask your friends. And if you haven’t spoken to your friends for long time… you probably need to take a step back, and re-connect as soon as you can!
Remember, human beings are social creatures. As much as we need “me time” to take a break from whatever work consumes us, we also need “social time”. Think of it as crowdsourcing your self-diagnosis - it’s one thing to look into a mirror to check if your hair looks messy or if that dress fits you well. It’s another thing to have close and trusted friends give you a variety of honest opinions - they may not share your blind spots, and Caregiver burnout is one of those things that creeps up on us from where we usually cannot see it. So reach out and find friends! Go on CaregiverAsia’s Facebook page, look around and connect with Caregivers from the world over! Until next time, take care of yourselves!
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