What is caregiver burnout and stress?
Taking care of another person can be stressful. Everyone has some stress, but too much can harm your health, relationships, and enjoyment of life. Caregiver burnout happens when you are in a state of stress or distress for a prolonged period of time. It can affect your mood and make you feel tense, angry, anxious, depressed, irritable, frustrated, or fearful. Caregiver burnout can make you feel out of control, unable to focus, unsatisfied with work, or lonely. Caregiver stress and burnout can also cause physical symptoms like sleep problems, muscle tension (back, shoulder, or neck pain), headaches, stomach problems, weight gain or loss, fatigue, chest pain, heart problems, hair loss, skin problems, or a colds and infections.
Get help from a healthcare provider if you are:
- Ignoring your own health problems or symptoms (including putting off seeing your own doctor)
- Eating poorly
- Overusing tobacco, alcohol, or other substances
- Giving up exercise
- Losing contact with friends
- Bottling up feelings of anger and frustration
- Having angry outbursts
- Feeling resentful towards others or unreasonably annoyed by them
- Feeling anxious, depressed, sad, or hopeless
- Blaming the person with cancer for the situation
- Feeling tired all the time
- Sleeping poorly
What causes caregiver burnout and stress?
These things can lead to caregiver stress or make it worse:
- Fear & uncertainty: Cancer treatment isn’t certain. It’s hard not to worry about the person with cancer and the future.
- Shifting roles: Caregiving can change relationships. This isn’t bad. It can be upsetting when someone who has been a source of strength is suddenly vulnerable or when you find yourself making decisions somebody else used to make.
- Too much to do: As a caregiver, you may feel overwhelmed by all you have to do, and as though everything is falling on your shoulders.
- Financial pressure: The costs of cancer care can be a source of stress. Also, you and the patient may be unable to work full-time—or at all.
- Loneliness & isolation: Caregiving takes time. You may find you don’t have time to spend with friends, take part in outside activities, or pursue hobbies.
- Little time alone: Everyone needs time for themselves. This can be difficult to get when you are caring for someone with cancer.
- Constant demands: Being on call around-the-clock can be especially hard.
- Guilt: You may feel bad that you can’t give more, or you may feel that you are short-changing other family members and friends. While all these things are common among caregivers, there are things you can do to lessen your stress.
How can I deal with my burnout and stress?
Here are some tips for dealing with your caregiver burnout or stress:
- Recognize the warning signs of stress early. Never dismiss your feelings as "just stress."
- Ask for help with caregiving! Accept it when it’s offered. Take time for yourself. Ask a friend or family member, or hire someone to stay with your loved one to give you time off to shop, go to a movie, or visit a friend. Try to prioritize taking care of yourself. Eat well, drink enough water and other fluids.
- Try to get some exercise every day, even if it’s just a walk around the neighborhood.
- Get regular medical and dental checkups.
- Identify sources of stress and write them down. This is especially helpful for feelings that you don’t want to share. Identify things you can improve. Try prayer and/or meditation to accept the things you can’t change.
- Make a list of priorities for each day. Set realistic goals. If you cannot meet these goals, it is okay to complete them the next day. Give yourself permission to grieve, cry and express your feelings.
- Try meditation, yoga, music, or deep breathing to relax.
- Talk to someone—a friend, counselor, family member, or clergy member.
- Talk to a professional if your stress is overwhelming. Watch funny memes, videos, or movies. There is evidence to show that laughter helps offset some caregiver stress and burnout symptoms. Join a support group like My Cancer Circle, which is especially for caregivers of people with cancer.
- Make a list of the good things that have happened. Give yourself credit for what you’re doing. Forgive yourself when you don’t do things as well as you want. Remember that you are doing the best that you can.
- Learn to say "no" when someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to do, and/or that may be draining (like hosting a holiday meal).
- Educate yourself about what to anticipate with your loved one’s cancer treatment. Get information from your doctor, the Internet, local library, bookstores, or local support groups. This may help with feelings of uncertainty. You’ll find a list of valuable resources here.
- Find someone who can help you understand all of the medical information. This could be a healthcare professional, someone in a support group, or someone who has been through the same thing. Keep a list of questions to discuss with the patient’s healthcare providers.
- Try to plan for legal and financial matters. Planning now will lessen stress later. Involve other family members in these activities and decisions.
When should I talk to my doctor?
Call your doctor or 911 immediately if you feel like you could hurt yourself or someone else. Talk to your doctor if you have any of these feelings for more than two weeks:
- Generalized anger
- Hee, M., Songjah, J., Lee, S. (2022). Effect of laughter therapy on mood disturbances, pain, and burnout in termally ill cancer patients and family caregivers. Cancer Nursing. Epub before print. DOI: 10.1097/NCC.0000000000001162
- Koumarianou, A., Symeonidi, A., Kattamis, A., Linardatou, K., Chrousos, G., & Darviri, C. (2021). A review of psychosocial interventions targeting families of children with cancer. Palliative & Supportive Care, 19(1), 103-118. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1478951520000449
- Yaman, A., & Büyükyılmaz, F. (2022). The effect of relaxation exercises on burden, burnout, and anxiety levels in palliative caregivers. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 58(3), 1089-1095. DOI: 10.1111/ppc.12906