Updated July 2020
As the American population ages, the number of family caregivers increases, too. That means taking care of your loved ones and yourself.
One significant health impact for caregivers is – not surprisingly – stress. Left unattended, these feelings can develop into caregiver stress syndrome. That’s why it’s vital that you put as much importance on your mental and emotional health as you do your family members’.
How Should Caregivers Take Care of Themselves?
Here are five ways you can take better care of yourself while caring for a family member:
- Understand how stress hormones impact your physical health
- Stay physically active
- Calm your mind
- Engage in social activities
- Set goals
Let’s take a closer look at each of these tactics.
The Effects of Stress Hormones on Your Body
Caregivers are at risk of both physical and emotional stress, which causes our bodies to release hormones such as cortisol. “Cortisol is a steroid, just like the pharmaceutical drugs given to suppress the immune system when it is overactive,” explains Tara Nayak, a naturopathic physician in Philadelphia.
Elevated stress hormones heighten the risk of, among other health issues, impaired cardiovascular and brain function, increased blood pressure, gastrointestinal tract disorders, and reduced ability to fight off colds, the flu, and other infections. Indications that stress is weakening your immune system, Nayak says, include fatigue, weight gain around the belly, and a higher than usual susceptibility to illness. Higher stress can also worsen existing health conditions and slow the healing of wounds.1
Lynette Whiteman, executive director of Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey, and a caregiver for her 90-year-old mother, refers to those under high stress as being in the “red zone.” Symptoms she sees in these caregivers include sleep disorders, crying, anxiety, and an "overwhelming feeling that they can no longer handle things."
"Personally," Whiteman admits, "when I'm overwhelmed, I feel physically exhausted, get headaches and feel like I just can't cope anymore."
If this sounds familiar, you’re probably wondering what you can do to alleviate stress.
Four Ways to Reduce Stress and Improve Self-Care
Stress-reducing activities can be woven into your daily routine. Here are four ideas to get you started:
- Stay physically active. “Exercise greatly reduces stress, whether it’s intense cardio or a more mind/body conscious exercise such as yoga,” Nayak says. Check out our guide to exercise options for seniors of all ability levels.
- Calm your mind. Taking a few minutes to escape our obligations actually helps, Nayak notes. Guided meditation is an extremely effective practice: “Even just a quick five-minute video from YouTube can help,” she says. Get more ideas for stress-relieving activities.
- Engage in social activities. Because caregivers tend to be isolated, it’s important to connect with other people, “either friends, relatives, or by joining a support group and participating in activities that you enjoy,” says Jo McCord, a consultant with the Family Caregiver Alliance in San Francisco. See more tips for staying socially engaged.
- Set realistic goals. Instead of trying to do everything on your own, reprioritize your to-dos and then get some help. Whiteman suggests calling your local Area Agencies on Aging office for a helping hand. “You may qualify for assistance or there may be a volunteer program in your area that can provide respite,” she explains.
Caring for someone you love can be challenging sometimes, but it doesn’t have to stress you out. Take good care of yourself, caregiver. You, too, deserve it.
Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a healthcare condition.
1 [For entire paragraph] The impact of stress on body function: A review. Habib Yaribeygi, Yunes Panahi, Hedayat Sahraei, Thomas P. Johnston, and Amirhossein Sahebkar; EXCLI Journal