Everyone experiences moments of stress, which can peak and then dissipate. Individuals who care for young children, aging adults or sometimes both often experience additional stress in their daily lives. Over time, they may develop “caregiver burnout.”

Generally, burnout occurs when someone is in a state of continued high levels of stress, which can lead to physical and mental fatigue. Caregiver burnout can develop when someone in a caregiver role experiences increased stress and may not have enough resources to manage it. This can appear gradually or be triggered by a specific event.

“People who have maybe a predisposition to anxiety or depression are probably going to be more likely to experience burnout,” said Lauren Demshar Abbott, LCSW, psychotherapist with the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network. “That being said, no one is immune to burnout.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased overall awareness of burnout, as people everywhere struggled with the new physical and emotional stressors it caused. For caregivers, normal routines had to suddenly be re-evaluated to reduce potential exposure: Should kids go to daycare or school in person? What extra precautions do I need to make sure I don’t get my elderly parents sick? How can I take care of those depending on me without the support I had pre-pandemic?

Signs of Caregiver Burnout

While caregiver burnout isn’t a diagnosable disorder, there are signs that you may be experiencing it. These include:

  • Low energy
  • Feelings of sadness or emptiness
  • Increased worry
  • Increased irritability
  • Lack of focus or motivation
  • Trouble sleeping

Abbott notes that all of these can also be symptoms of depression. If something isn’t done to relieve burnout symptoms, they can lead to a mental health condition like Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

“Caregivers experiencing burnout are reporting higher rates of mental health issues,” Demshar Abbott said. “When those symptoms cause you to think, ‘Is this something I need to take a look at more seriously? Could this be depression?’ that's when it's time to talk to your primary care provider. That's always a good place to start.”

Other warning signs that burnout may be leading to a larger issue include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach issues
  • Body aches
  • Increased outbursts of anger or frustration
  • Persistent sadness or anxiety

How To Avoid Burnout

Whether you are looking to recover from a current state of caregiver burnout, or you want to know how to prevent it altogether, these mental health practices can help control your stress levels and improve your mood.

Understand Your “Fight-Flight-Freeze” Response

When humans perceive a threat, our bodies are programmed to protect us by going into a “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” response. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol flood the brain, preparing us to face a threat, run from it or “play dead.” Our blood pressure and heart rate increase, and our muscles tense up. While this is useful when we are facing real danger, it's not helpful when that threat is not something you can like fight off or run from, like screaming children or a coworker with an attitude or a coronavirus.

Be conscious of when you notice those signs. “Your muscles are going to get tense because your primal reaction is, ‘That's a threat to me,’ and it’s not going to be helpful if you have a tense body, because you can't fight or flee from the stressors,” Demshar Abbott said. Relaxing the muscles and regulating your breath will help lower your blood pressure and heart rate and dial down those stress hormones. “You’re going to be able to respond in a way that's probably going to be more helpful to the situation and, more importantly, isn't going to stress yourself out,” she said.

Validate Your Feelings

It’s easy to bury or dismiss emotions, thinking that they will go away on their own or that you don’t have time to deal with them. This thought process is actually counterintuitive. Acknowledging the emotions you feel and encouraging yourself while you work through them can give you power over how much those emotions affect you.

“If you only validate how awful you feel, you can get stuck in your emotions. But if you only encourage yourself, that can turn into, ‘Just suck it up,’ and then you're invalidated in your emotions,” Demshar Abbott said. “It's a delicate dance of validating what you’re feeling — it makes sense to feel this way — and encouraging yourself. ‘Hey, I make it through this day, even though I'm anxious, stressed or burnt out.’”

Set Realistic Expectations

With more obstacles and fewer resources available, it may literally not be possible for caregivers to work in the same way they did pre-pandemic. “If you're trying to be at that same level or have that same set of expectations as you did in 2019, of course you're going to feel like you're not doing enough,” Demshar Abbott said. Recognizing this reality and knowing that it’s okay to reframe expectations can take unnecessary burden off yourself. You’re also not the only caregiver going through this experience. Take comfort in the fact that you’re not dealing with this alone.

Practice Healthy Habits

While they may be more focused on the health of others, caregivers should make time to care for themselves. Stick to a regular sleep routine, aiming for seven to eight hours of sleep and limiting phone time in bed. Set aside time every day to focus on something you enjoy, like reading or listening to your favorite music. Simply moving your body, whether that’s walking, stretching or a more rigorous exercise, raises your heart rate and increases your endorphins. You don’t even need to commit a lot of time to reap the benefits.

Seeking More Help

If these exercises do not help relieve your burnout, or it starts to become unmanageable, your next step should be consulting your primary care provider. Because they have a background on your medical history, they can help guide you to the best treatment option for you, which could include a referral to a behavioral health specialist, if necessary.

If you are in extreme distress, there are free suicide prevention resources available to you, including the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In case of an emergency, call 911.

Some caregivers may not realize that they are experiencing burnout until they’re in the thick of it. It took a pandemic for many people to start actively recognizing and managing their mental and emotional well-being. By making mental health exercises a part of your routine, you can reduce current signs of burnout and prevent it from happening again.

“Even if you don't have a mental health diagnosis, we all have mental health, and our mental health is going to be influenced by a global pandemic and all the complications that are going on because of it,” Demshar Abbott said. “It's important to treat your mind and body well when you are vulnerable, and we're all vulnerable right now.”

Randy Jeske

Care Giver Burn Out