How Caregiver Burnout Damages Our Brains

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What is caregiver burnout or syndrome? Can it be prevented?

Work-related stress that leads to burnout is often studied and talked about, but there hasn’t been enough research to specifically address caregiver burnout, and it may be more than just stressful. It may actually damage the brain, as well.

Caregiver Burnout

Why would you be concerned about stress from caring for someone you love? Work-related stress is well-known, but a family caregiver can be more stressful than working in a job. Unfortunately, it’s possible to even damage the brain and mental and emotional health while taking care of someone that you love. The following information can help you understand how family caregiving potentially creates problems for the brain, and what can be done about it.

What Does Caregiver Burnout Look Like?

A family caregiver may have noticeable burnout and show the same symptoms exhibited by other types of stress or depression. These various symptoms can include, but aren’t limited to, exhaustion, anger, social withdrawal, lack of appetite or weight gain, sleep problems, extreme fatigue, digestive concerns, lowered immune function, and the list goes on from there. You won’t find “Caregiver Syndrome” listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet it’s commonly used by healthcare professionals when describing the well-known negative effects on caregivers.

A thought-provoking post entitled, “The Effects of Caregiver Stress on the Body and Brain,” on the Alzheimer’s Care Resource Center website states that caregiving can have a major effect on one’s overall physical health, especially when the caregiver’s responsibilities last for extended periods of time.

Burnout symptoms may correlate to the caregiver’s genetic traits, education, financial circumstances, and previous mental conditions. With roughly 70% of caregivers suffering from depression, caregiving stress management has to begin with a self-monitoring and awareness of changes. One has to be alert to any indication of problems, in order to get help quickly. Just as with other types of chronic stress, caregiver burnout may present serious harm to your brain if unchecked. Stress triggers chemical changes in the brain that can impact memory capacity and learning abilities.

Situational Versus Long-Term Stress

Be aware that caregiving is a challenging role and will most likely test anyone’s emotions and psyche. Short-term stress often makes people anxious, irritable or tense, distracted and forgetful, but things get worse with longer periods of stress. Besides that, when caregivers deny their negative emotions like guilt, stress hormone levels can increase and these increased levels can impact physical, emotional and mental health. Research on the risks of caregivers shows consequences of reduced immune and endocrine functioning, increased depression, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease and even a greater risk of death. A Huffington Post article counseled that the extended severity of life events can “harm your brain’s memory and learning capacity by reducing the volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions.” Stated simply, chronic stress may shrink the brain.

Tips for Handling Caregiver Burnout Before It Damages your Brain

If stress levels begin to climb, consider improving your brain power with these practical remedies suggested by the Mayo Clinic:

Accept help graciously. If someone offers help, accept it graciously. In fact, keep a list of things that your friends, family or health care professional can assist with – running errands, grocery shopping, cooking homemade meals, housekeeping or just spending time with the person you have been caring for, so you can take a needed break.

Remember to take good care of yourself, too. Don’t allow yourself to get heavy with guilty feelings. You’re probably doing a better job than you think when caring for your loved one. Guilt can be paralyzing and lead to depression, so don’t strive for perfection. Do the best you can and remember to take care of yourself, too.

Don’t overdo it. Family caregivers sometimes overdo it and suddenly realize they have run themselves ragged. Set aside some time to keep yourself organized and set achievable and realistic goals. It’s a very good time to practice the word “no.”

Contact your community resources. If you have identified and made a list of your needs, you can search for available local resources. Are there classes that could help you in your situation? Or perhaps, there are local support groups that can help? Transportation services, meal preparation, and home delivery companies or cleaning services may be extremely helpful.

Self-care. Don’t lose sight of your own healthy goals. Get enough quality sleep, exercise regularly, and eat whole foods and healthy fruits and vegetables. Drink ample fresh water and don’t neglect your own visits to the doctor during this time.

Respite care helps.

Often, if you give yourself (and your brain) a regular break from the daily grind, you will feel better. Consider respite care. Respite care is the temporary care of a dependent person so that their regular caregiver can take some time to recuperate and recover from their challenging tasks. Sometimes it may involve in-home respite, as when a professional comes to assist with your loved one. And, sometimes, an aide will provide needed assistance while the regular family caregiver enjoys a mini-vacation, or just spends a day or two taking time for getting outdoors walking or bicycling. Enjoying some social time may be just what is needed for the caregiver to feel refreshed and recharged.

A family caregiver is charged with vitally important and incredibly challenging work. If you are a caregiver for loved ones, take care of yourself by keeping stress managed as much as possible. When you’re noticing symptoms of burnout in yourself, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Taking care of yourself is your priority before taking care of someone else.

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