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What is burnout and do caregivers experience it?

If you’ve been providing care for a while, you may start to experience signs and symptoms of burnout. This is an unfortunately common experience for caregivers, as many provide care for extended periods (multiple years, on average) with little to no support or reprieve. As a result, the feelings of burnout may start to set in. Let’s explore what caregiver burnout is, what causes it, and what it feels like.

What is Caregiver Burnout?

Caregiver burnout is when a caregiver has hit an extended state of physical and mental exhaustion. It is often marked with a change in mood and perception - like no longer feeling positive about the care you’re providing for your loved one like you once did.

According to WebMD, “caregivers who are "burned out" may have fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression.” Caregivers are especially prone to experiencing burnout due to the constant stress they’re under. Many caregivers also feel guilty focusing on themselves and find it difficult to ask for or accept help.

What are the Causes of Burnout in Caregivers?

There are many potential causes for burnout, but some of the most common for caregivers include:

  • Confusion over your role Many caregivers take on the role of caregiver unexpectedly. It can be a gradual slip into the role, (i.e., slowly taking on more as the loved one in your care shows signs of needing assistance), a sudden need (such as a sudden diagnosis and treatment plan, as is often the case with cancer and chemotherapy), or injury. Either way, it’s a very common occurrence that the caregiver role isn’t ever formally discussed with the loved one in your care or other members of your family. This can lead to feelings of confusion and frustration. Similarly, it can be hard to separate your role as a caregiver from the other roles you may fill (such as a spouse, employee, mother, friend, father, neighbor, etc.) which can also cause confusion, resentment, and frustration.

  • Too high of expectations Many caregivers go into caregiving with the expectation that they’ll see a noticeable change in the person as a response to their care or that they will somehow be able to heal their loved one. This comes from a hopeful and positive place but ultimately leaves the caregiver disappointed (and may make them feel like giving up). It’s important to remember that, especially in cases of chronic or progressive illness (such as dementia), this isn’t possible. What is possible (and what you’re doing), however, is prolonging their independence and improving their quality of life.

  • Low control and resources In the caregiving journey, there will be a lot of challenges. Keeping your loved one’s care organized, (such as doctor’s appointments, treatments/prescription information, etc.) managing bills, or finding the resources to pay for everything can be extremely mentally taxing.

Paired with this problem is that often caregivers have unrealistic expectations for themselves, or have unrealistic expectations placed on them by others. They expect (or are expected) to be able to handle everything themselves and/or may struggle to release control when help is offered. All of these can lead to an eventual burnout when the level of expected care is unattainable.

Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout

There are many signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout, they all tend to mimic the signs of stress, depression, and anxiety (which is why they are strongly correlated). This list is intended to be helpful, but it is not exhaustive.

  • You have a lot less energy than you once had.

  • It seems like you always catch a cold or the flu.

  • You’re constantly deeply exhausted, even after sleeping or taking a break.

  • You neglect your own needs, either because you’re too busy or you simply don’t care anymore.

  • Everything in your life revolves around your caregiving responsibilities, but it gives you little satisfaction in return.

  • You have trouble relaxing or letting go, even when help is available and used.

  • You’re increasingly impatient and irritable with the person you’re caring for and unable to shake your frustration off at times.

  • You feel helpless and hopeless.

Closing Thoughts

Providing care for another is a wonderful and fulfilling journey, but it’s also an incredibly stressful one. There are millions of caregivers in the US today who experience the same thoughts, guilts, fears, and many of the same challenges you do. You don’t have to do it alone and you are not alone.

If you provide regular care to your loved one, we at CRC Orange County are here for you. We invite you to check out our library of information for family caregivers by clicking here for further reading and resources. 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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