Self-care isn't selfish. It's a necessary practice for everyone, and especially for the millions of caregivers who work tirelessly to care for someone with a long-term illness or disability.
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About one in five adults in the U.S. is a caregiver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and about a third of them devote at least 20 hours a week to the task. For many, the responsibility of caring for a loved one — a spouse, parent or an adult child, for example — can be a stressful one. In fact, this stress has even given rise to its own term: caregiver burnout.
What Is Caregiver Burnout?
"When we are taking care of someone else, it's really easy to pour a lot of our time, energy, love and attention into that individual," says Shainna Ali, PhD, a mental health counselor, educator and advocate, and author of The Self Love Workbook. "The problem happens when we pour all of our energy into the person…and neglect ourselves in the process."
Caregivers are more at risk for depression and anxiety than noncaregivers, according to the CDC. One September 2018 study in Medicine found that, among people who were providing care to someone with cancer, 47 percent of them had anxiety and 42 percent had depression.
Part of the reason for the symptoms associated with caregiver burnout is that caregivers often overlook the importance of self-care. But when we don't take care of our own health, we can't take care of someone else's health, says Ali. "At the end of the day, a healthy caregiver is the best type of caregiver," she says.
How to Practice Self-Care to Avoid Burnout
Try a few of the techniques below, which will benefit both your physical and mental health.
1. Prioritize What’s Important
You can't practice self-care until you've identified what really makes you happy and healthy. Are you a social person who spends a lot of time with friends and family? Are you a person of faith who prays often? If your caregiving responsibilities crowd out these needs, you might become more prone to burnout, says Ali.
If you've recently become a caregiver, your schedule may not be nearly as open as it once was, she says. But you should still make time to do what you love.
"You might not be able to do a brunch date on Sunday," says Ali, "but you can call a friend on the drive over to your [parent's] house or when [they're] taking a nap."
2. Ask for Help
Just because you're a primary caregiver doesn't mean you need to be the only caregiver.
"No one can successfully do that role over the long-term by themselves," clinical psychologist Nicole Beurkens, PhD, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Think about what you need the most, then try to outsource some of those tasks to others, she says. Do the dishes and dirty laundry tend to pile up? Enlist the help of a housecleaner. Do you need a sitter so you can run errands? Ask a friend or relative to watch your loved one for an hour or two each week.
Oftentimes, health insurance or disability will pay for services like skilled nursing care, nonmedical home care (such as housekeeping and cooking) and respite care (which includes adult day care and home care services). There may also be nonprofit organizations in your community, such as synagogue or church groups, that provide meals and other assistance, says Beurkens.
3. Practice Gratitude
It can be easy for anyone, including caregivers, to focus on what's going wrong rather than what's going right. That's why Ali tells people to spend one minute each day thinking about what they're grateful for.
A host of studies highlight the benefit of practicing gratitude: People who do tend to be more optimistic and have stronger immune systems.
Oftentimes, people end up practicing gratitude throughout the day — say, for five minutes at a time or while they're doing a mundane chore and so on, says Ali. "Some things are minute, but packed with a lot of potency, especially if it's habitual," she says.
4. Take a Walk
Being cooped up indoors all day is a surefire way to send your stress levels soaring. Ali recommends limiting the amount of time you spend sitting down or using a computer or phone.
Aim to take a walk whenever you can, she says. (You can bring your loved one with you or try to carve out some time for a solo trek.) Spending as little as 10 minutes in nature is enough to decrease your stress levels, according to a January 2020 research review in Frontiers in Psychology.
5. Talk to Someone
Caregiving can be an emotional roller coaster. "There are a variety of normal emotions for caregivers to have," says Beurkens. "Everything from feeling grateful that you're a support and being proud that you can manage things to feeling really stressed, overwhelmed, angry and resentful. And because that range is so wide, that makes it hard to manage."
One of the best ways to cope with those emotions is to talk to someone — whether that's a therapist, a spiritual counselor or a trusted friend. "You need to have some outlet or place where you can be open or honest with how you're feeling," Beurkens says.
Support groups — either in-person or online — can also be a source of comfort, Ali says. You can join the Family Caregiver Alliance's Online Caregiver Support Group or find a family support group with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. There are also support groups that are affiliated with local hospitals, Ali says.
Is This an Emergency?
- Greater Good Science Center: Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review"
- Family Caregiver Alliance’s Online Caregiver Support Group
- NAMI Family Support Group
- Medicine: "Prevalence and determinants of depression in caregivers of cancer patients"
- CDC: "Alzheimer's Disease and Healthy Aging: Caregiving"
- CDC: "2018 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) Data from adults in 44 States, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia"