What You Need to Know About Caregiver Stress . . .

2012 March 27

The one malady that affects all caregivers is stress.  As caregivers, we have so much to stress about: our loved ones, our ability (or inability) to spend time with the people we care for, managing our jobs while caring, attempting to balance our families and our caregiver duties, and oh yeah, trying to hold onto ourselves in the midst of our unyielding 24-hour a day care.

As caregivers, our stressors are different than most others. But before we can learn how to reduce caregiver stress, we need to pause to think about why and how stress affects us so differently than most others.

(1)   Stress is most dangerous when we believe it is permanent. When we believe our caregiving duties will never end, when we believe that we or someone we love will always suffer, stress becomes debilitating because it changes us. Not only do we withdraw into a world of our own making (see #3 below), we can no longer respond appropriately to the people around us. We hear the whispers of stress, “you can’t do this,” not the sounds of the person we are near. We feel the grip of doubt, not the touch of reassurance of the person we sleep next to.  And we blind ourselves to the glare of uncertainties in our head, not the sight of what is present before us.

(2)  Caregiver stress has no past. Think about it, do you still stress about something that happened a year ago? I didn’t think so. Are you still stressing about the conversation you had with your loved one last Friday? Stressing about the hospital visit that occurred months ago? Probably not.  Stress has no past because it is so effective at focusing all of our attention on future uncertainties. We can even laugh at past stresses—“I can’t believe I was worried about . . . ,” but stress never, ever, has a sense of humor about the future. Stress convinces us that the future is always serious and worthy of fretting over.  Caregiver stress holds our attention on the future and won’t let go of us, holding our pleasant and comforting memories of the past hostage and out of sight.

(3) Stress turns us away from others. Stress isn’t like fear. When we fear something, like watching a horror movie, we want to spend time in the company of others because we believe we will be okay simply because we aren’t alone.  Stress, on the other hand, tricks us into believing that we can best “solve” stress alone, behind closed doors, in the privacy of our own thoughts. Stress is at its most dangerous when it convinces us to turn away from others by telling ourselves, “Others wouldn’t get it,” and “I’m different than others” and “I don’t want to burden others with my problems.” When this happens, stress not only changes how we think, it pushes people away from us.

(4) Stress changes shape the more attention we give it. Like anything, the more attention we give stress, the more it grows. Like a Chia Pet, stress grows with the right nutrients of isolation and mental attention.  Stress becomes more vivid the more we devote our thoughts to its hallucinating facade that makes us believe we can’t (and shouldn’t) turn our eyes and thoughts away from it.  Eventually, we convince ourselves, especially when we are alone (see #3 above), that the world we have mapped in our heads will unfold just as we imagine.   And the more we talk with ourselves, the less able we are to prevent ourselves from mapping our lives according to the compass of what might happen rather than the compass of what is happening.

Stress is a constant for caregivers. We learn to live under the influence of stress while we care for those we love—whether in person or thousands of miles away. No one can take away the events or experiences of our lives that induce stress, but we can try to minimize our participation in exacerbating caregiver stress. Look for next week’s Unprepared Caregiver blog for specific strategies to help reduce your caregiver inspired stress.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Kathy Sommers permalink
    March 27, 2012

    Stress is a constant nightmare… You get stressed by the situation and then get stressed because you are stressed by that situation. Oh, yeah, it is crazy-making… And sometimes, you just feel like nobody cares about you. It can make you sick. At the moment, I am preparing for knee replacement surgery. I am worrying about how I will care for my son and my Dad for the six weeks I am recovering and especially the two weeks I won’t be good for much of anything. Yes, my daughter will be taking my son for the first week but then she has to go back to work and I had better be functional…

  2. March 27, 2012

    Yes stress is such a total demon with caregivers,although in the end, as with myself, caregiver for the terminal,it’s that satisfaction of knowing that i made their last days as comfortable and pleasurable as can be and hopefully taking some of the fear and stress from them before they pass on.Satisfaction will beat stress if you make it so in your mind while your waiting for their end to come.Caregivers will always be stressed,mental and physical stress. But all the while work satisfaction and love into the works and the stress will be bearable.

  3. Liz permalink
    March 28, 2012

    You hit two really important issues for me here. The first is the feeling that it will never end, combined with the fear that it will. The second is that feeling of solitude; no one else will understand. If I complain, it will make my loved one feel like a burden. I will look selfish. Thanks for the article. Good timing.

  4. tommy cunningham permalink
    March 30, 2012


  5. March 31, 2012

    I deeply appreciate the insights you give for us caregivers though here, I tend to see things differently. In point one I agree those that feel the belief that stress will be ‘permanent’ is problematic but not if they know it is permanent. We can’t go around with false hope either that, ‘well one day it will be over and then I’ll get my life back’. We have to have our lives here and now.
    Acting upon the knowledge that we could be in this role for many more years to come should help to free our way of thinking, allow our ambitions to return (in modified form) and most importantly, pace ourselves better, than if there is clinging to a belief that things will turn around in the near future.
    Concerning point two, I stress very much about past issues, because they often return and therefore give me a basis from which to formulate strategies to cope with future manifestations. When issues are serious enough you never say to yourself, ‘how did I worry about that’, you say, ‘how did I make it through that’ (and, ‘I don’t think I can go through it again’, but you will).
    I am definitely guilty of #3. Trying to work on that.
    Point 4 is IMO directly connected to the development of 3. The proverbial vicious circle.

    Keep up the good work, you are a voice of clarity, much needed by caregivers.

  6. April 3, 2012

    Great reminders, Dr. White, and I appreciate the comments. Debra, in my experience caregivers keep their balance when they are able to focus on the positive contributions they’ve made. If we focus only on the suffering we weren’t able to alleviate, we can sink into despair. So important to stay centered.

    Tommy, I agree – journaling is a very helpful way to work through the many and conflicting emotions you must be experiencing every hour of every day. Your wife is very fortunate to have your wise companionship. Have you tried adding a gratitude component to your writing practice? I’ve found regularly noting at least three things I’m grateful for helps keep me mindful of the grace in life, alongside the suffering.

  7. Dr. Zachary White permalink
    April 3, 2012

    Eliza, Thanks so much for your comments and insight.

  8. May 13, 2012

    Good article, Dr. White. I can relate the most with number 3. As a young, male caregiver, there was hardly anyone in my peer group who could understand. Either because of my gender or my age, I always felt as a minority and left out at support groups. As you have said, caregiver stress has no past. Today, given that the uncertainty has passed, I have realized that the secrecy made it worse than the medical condition itself. And that’s what we should be changing.

  9. September 13, 2012

    This is a great post. Everyone deals with stress, but as a caregiver the reasons for stress can be different and can get in the way of doing the best at your job.Thanks for sharing.

  10. September 28, 2012

    On an airplane, an oxygen mask descends in front of you. What do you do? As we all know, the first rule is to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist anyone else. Only when we first help ourselves can we effectively help others. Caring for yourself is one of the most important—and one of the most often forgotten—things you can do as a caregiver. When your needs are taken care of, the person you care for will benefit, too.

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