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Stress management for carers – how to avoid carer burnout

Stress management can be challenging for anyone, especially for those who are either part time or full time carers for a loved one. It’s extremely important to take time out for your own physical and emotional health in order to avoid carer burnout. Remember, your own wellbeing significantly impacts the quality of care you provide. 

The responsibility of caring for a friend or family member can exacerbate stress levels and leave you feeling drained, underappreciated, and simply exhausted. To avoid reaching that point, follow these effective ways to reduce carer burnout.

First things first: you have your own life to manage. No matter how important it is to you to look after your loved one, keep in mind that your wellbeing is crucial and it isn’t selfish or wrong to take time to recharge. In fact, it is paramount. Whether you are looking after a loved one with any sort of illness, carer burnout is very real and we’re here to help.

You may not notice the effects of carer stress at first. Perhaps you’re having regular headaches, your muscles are tense or sore, and/or you have difficulty sleeping. As time goes on, you often feel irritable, can’t concentrate, and decision making becomes more difficult.

Neuro endocrinologist and professor at Stanford University, Robert Sapolsky, has studied stress for over three decades. As he describes it, “for normal mammals, stress is about three minutes of terror.”

Sarah, a 49 year-old carer, couldn’t agree more.

“As a carer, I often find myself in situations I can’t escape from, or I think I can’t escape from. I feel anxious and stressed, and I can never seem to make reasonable decisions in such a state.”

What does stress do to your body?

We all know what stress feels like, but do you know exactly what it does to your body? During a stressful encounter, our lungs work overtime to pump oxygen into our body, our blood pressure and blood sugar rise, and anything that’s not essential is ‘switched’ off, such as ovulation, digestion, or tissue repair. After the stressor disappears, the system returns to normal.

Unremitting stress can cause a lot of damage, and the stress response is more damaging than the stressor itself, says Saplosky.

Chronic, low-level stress kills brain cells, adds fat to our bellies, and makes us age faster. It increases the risk of depression and a whole host of mental and/or physical illnesses.

“I think our lack of routine switch-off time is one of the most pressing issues in modern society… for your health, it could hardly be more critical,” says Dr Rangan Chatterjee, UK medical doctor and author of The 4 Pillar Plan: How to relax, eat, move and sleep your way to a longer, healthier life.

Sarah often finds herself in a similar situation, where her tasks take precedence over her me-time.

“Being a carer is difficult at the best of times. I often find myself thinking of relaxation as a treat that I have to work for, but deep down I know I should do things differently. After all, if I don’t take care of myself, how am I supposed to take care of others?”

Biologically, we are not built to be under extreme stress all the time, yet balancing the stress associated with work, relationships and family duties, and being the caregiver to someone often seems impossible. But the good news is that with the right tools in your arsenal, it’s not.

What can you do to reduce stress and avoid carer burnout?

You know you’re stressed. You know it’s not good for you. But how can you relieve stress? You don’t want to reach a point of caregiver burnout, but it’s also impossible to eliminate all stressors when you’re a carer – or it certainly feels like it. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the effects they have on you.

If you cannot change your circumstances, you can still change your body’s reaction to stress. There are many techniques to help manage chronic stress and remind your body what it’s like to not be under constant attack. And in the technology era, it’s little wonder that there’s also an app for that.

Time out – take a walk, listen to music, or read a book

Because he’s seen such positive results, Dr Chaterjee now regularly prescribes ‘me-time’ for his patients. “For at least 15 minutes, every day, and if possible, stop everything, and be utterly selfish,” he says. “Stop treating ‘relaxation’ as something that you do – or more likely, don’t do – when everything else has been dealt with.”

He urges us to make relaxation a part of our schedule. It can be as simple as sitting in a room and listening to your favourite music, doing a hobby, reading a book, having a relaxing bath, or taking a 15 minute walk at some point of the day.

Whatever you do, do it without your smartphone, tablet, or computer and, as Dr Chaterjee says, “never feel guilty about it.”

Physical activity – exercise or stretch

Exercise can help stop the build-up of stress. A brisk walk shortly after feeling stressed will deepen your breathing and help relieve muscle tension. Other activities such as yoga and tai chi combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus, which can also induce calm.

Social connection – spend time with friends and family

We’re wired to seek out others just as much as we are to find food, water and shelter.

Levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to be higher in lonely people, and the effects of feeling disconnected can be compared to smoking, and are often more damaging than obesity.

So schedule in social time and prioritise connecting with friends, family, and workmates every week.

Stress less in 2023…and beyond!

Pick at least one of the tips above, set a reminder on your phone for every day, and dedicate as much time to it as you can.

Start small – make time for a 15-minute walk outside or a short stretching session. Even better, allow a 30-minute window each day to walk or exercise, time to read, and organise a lunch date with a friend every few days.

You may not be able to eliminate stress altogether, however, you can make sure that you’re taking the appropriate measures to stay on top of your own health – as well as those you care for.

Remember, community support and respite care are available to you at any time and make sure you know when to ask for help yourself.

For a comprehensive 24-page ‘Carers Guide’ packed with support tips, strategies for assisting loved ones who are resistant to help, signs your loved one needs carer support, and all sorts of other important carer-related information, click here.

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