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Controlling Frustration for Caregivers

While the experience of caregiving is rewarding in many ways, there is no denying that the day-to-day task load is often incredibly frustrating. This frustration is a normal and valid response to the emotional challenges you’ll face as a caregiver. But prolonged frustration or irrational responses to that initial stimulus can create real problems for both you and the loved one in your care. In this article, we’re going to explore how to identify your frustration triggers and how to handle frustration when it does arise.

How to Know When You’re Getting Frustrated

When you get frustrated, there’s a small window of time to recognize it and redirect before you react. By knowing the warning signs of frustration and documenting each time it arises, you’ll be able to intervene with an immediate activity to help you calm down and look at the situation from a more neutral and controlled perspective.

Warning Signs of Frustration

  • Shortness of breath

  • A knot in the throat

  • Stomach cramps

  • Chest pains

  • Headache

  • Compulsive eating

  • Excessive alcohol consumption

  • Increased smoking

  • Lack of patience

  • Desire to strike or lash out

If you start to feel any of these symptoms bubbling up, now is the time to take action.

How to Take Action to Control Frustration

Step away immediately (or as soon as it is safe to do so) and take some deep breaths, walk around the block, call a friend, or channel it into a quick physical activity (like 20 pushups). These seemingly minor tasks will help you take the space you need to calm down and respond better to the situation.

Note: If you feel you’re in a fairly constant state of near-frustration (i.e. near the boiling point often and easily bubbling over into frustrated action), it may be time to talk to a professional. They are trained to help you work through the emotions, thoughts, and stimuli you experience and give you tools to reset.

How to Handle Frustration

Once you’ve stepped away and caught your breath, there are some steps you can take control of your thoughts and better handle the frustration.

First, change your focus from emotions, failures, or stressors to problem-solving.

Second, redirect your unhelpful thought patterns. Here are some examples of the unhelpful (maladaptive) thought patterns you may experience, and some constructive responses to help you redirect those thoughts in a more productive way.

  1. Over-generalization: You take one negative situation or characteristic and multiply it. For example, you're getting ready to take the person in your care to a doctor's appointment when you discover the car battery has died. You then conclude, "This always happens; something always goes wrong." Redirect/Adaptive response: “This does not happen all the time. Usually, my car works just fine. At times things don't happen the way I would like, but often they do."

  2. Discounting the positive: You overlook the good things about your circumstances and yourself. For example, you might not allow yourself to feel good about caregiving by thinking, "I could do more" or "anyone could do what I do." Redirect/Adaptive response: "Caregiving is not easy. It takes courage, strength, and compassion to do what I do. I am not always perfect, but I do a lot and I am trying to be helpful."

  3. Jumping to conclusions: You reach a conclusion without having all the facts. You might do this in two ways:

    1. Mindreading: We assume that others are thinking negative thoughts about us. For example, a friend doesn't return a phone call, and we assume that he or she is ignoring us or doesn't want to talk to us. Redirect/Adaptive response: "I don't know what my friend is thinking. For all I know, she didn't get the message. Maybe she is busy or just forgot. If I want to know what she is thinking, I will have to ask her."

    2. Fortune-telling: You predict a negative outcome in the future. For example, you will not try adult daycare because you assume the person in your care will not enjoy it. You think, "He will never do that." Redirect/Adaptive response: "I cannot predict the future. I don't think he is going to like it, but I won't know for sure unless I try."

  4. “Should" statements: You try to motivate yourself using statements such as “I should call my mother more often" or “I shouldn't go to a movie because my mom might need me." What you think you “should" do is in conflict with what you want to do. You end up feeling guilty, anxious, or frustrated. Redirect/Adaptive response: “I would like to go to a movie. It's okay for me to take a break from caregiving and enjoy myself. I will ask a friend or neighbor to check in on Mom.”

  5. Labeling: You identify yourself or other people with one characteristic or action. For example, you put off doing the laundry and think, “I am lazy.” Redirect/Adaptive response: “I am not lazy. Sometimes I don't do the maximum of what I could, but that doesn't mean I am lazy. I work hard and do the best that I can. Even I need a break sometimes.”

  6. Personalizing: You take responsibility for a negative occurrence that is beyond your control. For example, you might blame yourself when the person in your care requires hospitalization or placement in a facility. Redirect/Adaptive response: “Mom's condition has gotten to the point where I can no longer take care of her myself. It is her condition and not my shortcomings that require her to be in a nursing home.”

Finally, create a plan to avoid this same situation in the future. If interruptions are your source of frustration, for example, you can put some barriers in place to reduce their frequency. For example, you can set your phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode, put focus time limits on activities, or communicate better with those who are interrupting you.

How to Identify Your Frustration Triggers

Once the situation has been resolved, take notes on what the immediate preceding event was, when it happened, and how you felt before and after. For example, I got frustrated after arriving home from the pharmacy. I was low on energy (hungry).

Think of these journal entries as data - something you can use from an objective point of view (without judgment over the quality, justification, or frequency with which you experience frustration) to make productive changes. Over time you’ll recognize patterns and find your most common triggers.

Closing Thoughts/Asking for Help

Frustration is a very normal and often justified emotional response to the day-to-day life of being a caregiver. There is no shame in feeling frustrated from time to time, but it’s important not to let it overtake you to the point of detriment to yourself or others.

Remember that you cannot handle caregiving alone. Asking for or accepting offered help may feel strange, but it is one of the best ways to ensure your emotional wellbeing and reduce frustration.

For further reading and resources, we invite you to check out our library of information for family caregivers by clicking here. You are also welcome to give us a call at 800-543-8312 to find out more about how we can support you in your caregiving journey.


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