Self Care and Stress Management for Caregivers

Self Care and Stress Management for Caregivers

Maintaining good health, learning stress management skills, and self-care is essential to your role as a caregiver.  

Caring for a family member or friend who has a disability or a chronic illness can be rewarding. But it’s also demanding. Research shows family members who provide care to individuals with chronic or disabling conditions are themselves at risk. Emotional, mental, and physical health problems arise from complex caregiving situations and the strains of caring for frail or disabled relatives. Did you know over one-third of caregivers continue to provide intense care to others while suffering from poor health themselves? Often, an influential factor in a caregiver’s decision to place an impaired relative in a long-term care facility is the family caregiver’s own physical health.

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The Impact of Providing Care

Studies have shown that the impact of providing care can lead to increased health care needs for the caregiver.

Did you know, caregivers…

  • have lower levels of self-care.
  • have higher levels of depression and anxiety.
  • have high levels of stress and frustration.
  • may be in worse health than non-caregivers.
  • have an increased risk of heart disease.
  • have a higher use of alcohol and other substance use.
  • use prescription and psychotropic drugs more than non-caregivers.
  • have higher mortality rates – may die before the person they care for.

And female caregivers…

  • experience lower levels of well-being, life satisfaction, and physical health than male caregivers.
  • are more likely to report a personal history of high blood pressure, diabetes and higher levels of cholesterol.
  • who spend nine or more hours a week caring for an ill or disabled spouse increase their risk of heart disease two-fold.

Caregiver Stress Check

 Do you regularly……

___Yes ___No   Feel like you have to do it all yourself and that you should be doing more?

___Yes ___No   Withdraw from family, friends, and activities that you used to enjoy?

___Yes ___No   Worry about the safety of the person care for?

___Yes ___No   Feel anxious about money and health care-related decisions?

___Yes ___No   Deny the impact of the disease and its effects on your family?

___Yes ___No   Feel grief or sadness that your relationship with the person isn’t what it used to be?

___Yes ___No   Feel frustrated or angry when the person continually repeats things and doesn’t seem to listen?

___Yes ___No   Experience health problems that are taking a physical or mental toll?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be experiencing caregiver stress! Identifying stress is the first important step so that you can work toward managing your own health.

Stress Management for Caregivers

One key to being a successful caregiver is to manage stress by seeking support and taking care of yourself. Managing stress is especially important for a caregiver, because stress can weaken his/her immune system and a weak immune system makes the caregiver more likely to get sick.

Here are several practical stress management tips:

  • Manage stress before the situation becomes a crisis
  • Breathe – proven way to relax! Practice breathing through your nose, deep into your belly
  • Reframe how you see situations
  • Ask for help and be specific about what you need
  • Recognize your history and what triggers your stress response. “If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you always got.”
  • What do you have control over? What can you influence?
  • Take care of your physical and mental health
  • Have some fun
  • Respond – don’t react
  • Practice letting go
  • Prioritize activities according to their importance and available time. Activity does not necessarily mean productivity.
  • Recognize the harmful effects of perfectionism and take steps to be more flexible
  • Be willing to accept that sometimes “enough is okay”
  • Take one day at a time and value it as if it were your last
  • Educate yourself about caregiving
  • Join a support group
  • Remind yourself about the high cost of worry and the low return
  • Decide and “Just do it”
  • Establish and maintain winning relationships
  • Communicate; take the initiative
  • Surround yourself with winners
  • Avoid negative and critical people
  • Be real and true to yourself
  • Listen to others
  • Re-evaluate and re-balance your priorities; ask yourself:
    • Am I sure about what matters most?
    • What am I learning?
    • What am I doing to take care of myself?
    • What can I delegate or ask for help with?
    • What can I say no to?

Top 10 ways to manage your time and your stress

  1. Take one day at a time.
  2. Get rid of unnecessary stuff ‘chunk the junk’
  3. Be realistic
  4. Prioritize
  5. Decide
  6. Rid yourself of as many interruptions as possible
  7. Ask for help
  8. Make lists and do what is written on them.
  9. Plan “if you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else.”
  10. KISS-keep it simple and sane

Here is another way to look at the cost of not managing caregiver stress, as quoted in a blog written for our program by Sue Wallace, CSA in 2013. A lecturer, when explaining stress management to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked:

How heavy is this glass of water? Answers called out ranging from 20g to 500g. The lecturer replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.” The lecturer continued, “And that’s the way it is with stress management. If we carry our burdens all the time, eventually, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on. As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again. When we’re refreshed, we can carry on with the burden. So, before you return home tonight, put the burden of work down. Don’t carry it home. You can pick it up tomorrow. Whatever burdens you’re carrying now, let them down for a moment if you can.

Read the complete essay here. 

Caregiver Health – Nutrition

Self-evaluate your nutrition by asking yourself a few questions:

  • Do I already have basic nutrition habits?
    • Eating right for my age – People over 70 may require smaller portions of all groups except more of the milk, yogurt and cheese group
    • Drinking lots of water
    • Eating fresh fruits and vegetables
    • Consuming plenty of fiber
  • What changes could I have better nutrition?
  • Am I maintaining the best weight for my size, healthy, and chronic illnesses, such as diabetes?
  • Am I thinking about my nutrition needs for my health, medications, activity level and other factors?
  • Have I discussed vitamins and other supplements with my doctor and taking them as I should?
  • Would asking my doctor for a referral to a dietician help? (Especially with chronic health conditions?)
  • Am I buying nutritious, healthy frozen food or food quickly heated for the convenience when I have less time or energy because of my caregiving?
  • How can I learn about the best nutrition guidelines Top 10 Things You Need to Know About the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025  

Caregiver Health – Exercise

Since many caregivers have little spare time for themselves, when they finally get a break, they are probably craving rest, rather than thinking of exercise. Yet, of the two, exercise could be a far better choice. It may prevent you from getting sick, help you sleep better and is almost certain to give you more energy — three things of prime importance to a caregiver. En español 

Exercise Ideas for Caregivers:

  • Walking
    • The average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day, or roughly 1.5 to 2 miles.
    • The recommended 10,000 steps a day may not be achievable, but do what you can
    • It’s a good idea to find out how many steps a day you walk now, as your own baseline. Then you can work up toward the goal of 10,000 steps by aiming to add 1,000 extra steps a day every two weeks.
  • Gym workouts
  • Yoga, Tai Chi, and other low-impact exercise
    • Look for online free or fee-based videos or DVDs
    • City or private classes, including streaming from local libraries

Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Caregiver Health – Emotional life

Loneliness is common in family caregivers. The following link will take you to several essays on coping with loneliness from the National Council on Aging “Social Isolation & Loneliness for Caregivers

Also check out the Caregiver Teleconnection recording “Isolation & loneliness: What is the difference and what to do about both” by Andy B. Crocker.

Here are several day-to-day habits to keep your emotional state healthy while caregiving: 

  • Communicate! Stay connected to people, activities, and the community.
  • Balance commitments and caregiving
  • Keep your mind active:
    • Read
    • Attend adult education classes (many are online and free!)
    • Participate in community activities
  • Find or re-discover a spiritual path:
    • Prayer
    • Mindfulness and other “meditation” type practices 
    • Attend an organized worship of religious faith
    • Set aside quiet time or “down time” every day
    • Enjoy nature
    • Take a walk

Time Management for Caregivers 

As a caregiver, you become accustomed to putting others first and it’s easy to let other obligations and priorities slide. By learning and practicing time management skills you can get the most out of your time. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Re-evaluate your priorities. “What is the best use of my time right now?” “Am I over-committing my time?
  • Look plan ahead
  • Make lists and do what is on them. Mark off what you complete, to show yourself how much you have accomplished instead of what still needs to be done.
  • Organize your time by using an electronic or paper calendar that suits your personality and responsibilities.
  • Break overwhelming tasks into a series of smaller steps  
  • Schedule all activities to ensure they are done – unless they just are not important
  • A few suggestions to better organize
    • Evaluate a task or item
    • Give it away
    • Pass it on
    • Plan/organize it
    • Consolidate
    • Handle it as little as possible
    • Eliminate all that extra paper

The Phone

Is your phone stealing your time? Do you have to answer your phone every time it rings? Do you have to “jump” every time you recieve a text or an email? No! You are not obligated to read texts or emails immediately just because someone is writing to you. Set aside uninterrupted time during which you do not look at your phone. Suggest specific times for people to call you and only check your phone at certain times of the day, for example, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. 

Record keeping

Having an organized system for keeping records not only saves time but also reduces stress. Set up a caregiver record keeping system that fits your style. You might try the following:

  • Storage: try a 3-ring binder with tabs, expanding files, or electronic files if you are computer savvy
  • Make lists and use the A-B-C system (with “A” items being the most important and “C” items the least important)
    • and do what is on your lists!
  • Apply Pareto’s 80/20 rule (If you prioritize activities, 20% of your efforts will probably resolve 80% of the problems)
  • Handle paper and information once

You can organize folders by days of the month, months of the year, by what is pending, by project, or any other customized solution that fits your needs. Consider color coding according to categories and label by groups. 

Resources for Caregivers. Not all resources are available in every community.

  • Call 2-1-1 throughout Texas for information and access to health and human service information for all ages.
  • Call 800-252-9240 to find local Texas Area Agency on Aging.
  • Call 800-677-1116 – Elder Care Locator service to find help throughout the U.S.

Use resources such as Area Agency on Aging (AAA). Types of assistance provided by AAAs:

  • Information and referral
  • Caregiver education and training
  • Caregiver respite
  • Caregiver support coordination
  • Case management
  • Transportation assistance

Assistance available through area agencies on aging for persons age 60 and older may include:

  • Benefits counseling
  • Ombudsman – advocacy for those who live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities
  • Home-delivered meals
  • Congregate meals
  • Light housekeeping

Be sure to check out our Resource Directory, FAQ, and Educational Events Calendar for more great information! Permission is granted to duplicate any and all parts of this page to use in education programs supporting family members caring for elders. 

References: Includes materials adapted from Caregiver education modules, Family Caregiver Alliance “Caregiver Health“, and AARP “Exercising When Your’re Caring for Someone Else“. 

Revised February 2023
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We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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