How Caregiver Burnout Damages Our Brains

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Tired nurse with dark lighting in Dallas, TX

What does caregiver burnout mean? Can it be prevented?

It’s not unusual to read about work-related stress and how it leads to burnout, as it has been studied and talked about often. There hasn’t been as much research specific to family caregiver burnout, yet it can also be stressful and may actually damage the brain, as well.

Caregiver Burnout

Why might you have concern if you are a family caregiver? Realistically, a family caregiver may have more stress than what comes with a full-time career. Unfortunately, it’s even possible to cause damage to one’s own brain, as well as mental and emotional health by taking care of someone you love. The following may help you understand how helping as a family caregiver can create problems for the brain, and what you can do about it.

What Does Caregiver Burnout (or Syndrome) Look Like?

Other people might notice first that a caregiver has burnout, and that he or she is showing the same symptoms seen with severe stress or depression. Symptoms may include, but aren’t limited to, anger or rage, exhaustion, social withdrawal, lack of appetite or weight gain, problems sleeping leading to extreme fatigue, digestive concerns, lowered immune function, and more. You won’t read about “Caregiver Syndrome” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet this is a term commonly used by healthcare professionals as they describe what sometimes happens to caregivers.

An excellent post entitled, “The Effects of Caregiver Stress on the Body and Brain,” found on the Alzheimer’s Care Resource Center website states that caregiving sometimes has major effects on one’s overall health, especially when the responsibilities extend for long periods of time.

Symptoms of burnout can vary in respect to the caregiver’s genetic traits, education, financial circumstances, and previous mental conditions, but since nearly 70% of caregivers end up suffering from depression, caregiving stress management is important. Self-monitoring and an awareness of one’s own changes or indication of problems can help caregivers get help in a timely manner. As with other forms of chronic stress, caregiver burnout can create serious harm to your brain if left unchecked because stress appears to trigger chemical changes that impact memory capacity and learning abilities.

Situational Versus Long-Term Stress

Caregiving can be extremely challenging and a trial for to keep emotions and psyche intact. Even stress that is considered short-term and temporary can make people anxious, irritable or tense, forgetful or distracted, but it can still get worse with long periods of stress. When caregivers push down or deny negative emotions like guilt, their stress hormone levels tend to rise, and the increased levels may impact physical, emotional and mental health. Research shows that the consequences of caregiving can include lowered immune and endocrine functioning, increased depression, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease and even a risk of early death. A Huffington Post article counseled that lengthy periods of extreme 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.” In other words, chronic stress may shrink the brain.

Tips for Handling Caregiver Burnout Before It Damages your Brain

If stress hormone levels begin to surge, consider improving your brain power with some smart remedies suggested by the Mayo Clinic:

Accept help that gets offered to you. When a friend or family member offers help, accept it! In fact, it makes sense to keep a list of items friends, family or healthcare professionals could assist with, if they volunteer to help. They might run errands, grocery shop, cook homemade meals, do some housekeeping or just take some time with the person you are caring for, in order for you to take a well-deserved break.

Remember to take care of yourself. Caregivers sometimes get immersed in strong feelings of guilt. Beware of this trap, as you’re probably doing a better job than you think as you care for your loved one. Don’t even try for perfection. Guilt can be paralyzing and lead to depression, so do the best you can and remember to take care of yourself, too.

Don’t overdo it. Caregivers assisting loved ones often overdo it and suddenly they realize they’ve run themselves down. Keep yourself feeling good by setting achievable and realistic goals. Set aside some time to keep yourself organized. Learn to say “no.”

Research community resources. Once you’ve identified and created a list of needs, search locally for what might be available to you for resources. You might find classes that educate people in your situation. Perhaps, there are local support groups that can help people like you? Cleaning, transportation services, and meal preparation and home delivery companies may be helpful.

Self-care. Don’t lose yourself or your own health goals. It’s important to get quality sleep, exercise regularly, and eat healthy fruits and vegetables. Drink plenty of fresh water and keep up with visits to your own doctor during this time, too.

Respite Care May Help

Sometimes, when you give yourself (and your brain) a reprieve from the daily grind, you feel better, so consider respite care regularly. Respite care means temporary care of the dependent person while the regular caregiver takes time to recuperate and recover. Sometimes respite involves help at home with a professional assisting your loved one. Sometimes, an aide provides assistance while the family caregiver goes on a little vacation, or at least spends a day or two making time for walking or bicycling outdoors. Enjoying social time with friends can help a caregiver feel refreshed.

A family caregiver has vitally important and exceedingly challenging work at hand. If you are a caregiver, take care of yourself!  Keep stress managed as much as possible but if you begin to recognize symptoms of burnout in your behavior, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Taking care of yourself is a priority before you can take care of someone else!


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