9 signs of caregiver burnout

Warning signs and treatment options for caregiver burnout

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There are more than 40 million unpaid caregivers in the United States helping manage the care of adults 65 and older. Even though it’s common, acting as a caregiver can be extremely difficult and overwhelming. When the pressure gets to be too much, experts refer to this feeling as “caregiver burnout.” This article walks you through the warning signs of burnout and offers some tips for how to avoid it.

What is caregiver burnout?

Caregiver burnout is described as overwhelm brought on by unrelieved stress while taking care of another individual. Most experts have defined it as a psychological condition that affects the mental, physical and emotional health of a caregiver. Causes of this type of burnout can vary widely, but they include unrealistic expectations of success, unreasonable demands that interfere with the quality of life, lack of personal and financial support and much more.

Most of the time, it’s a combination of two or more of these that leads to caregiver burnout — and once a caregiver feels burnout, it’s hard to get out of that rut without taking a break from the duties that brought on the overwhelm. Actually taking that break can be difficult if you’re not aware of other options available to you and your loved ones, though.

Caregiver burnout prevention

Preventing caregiver burnout starts with noticing the warning signs and knowing what to do if they arise. Here are a few ways to avoid burnout:

Preventing caregiver burnout starts with noticing the warning signs and knowing what to do if they arise.
  • Ask for help. If you don’t feel like you can do everything yourself, you’re not alone. Know when to ask for assistance.
  • Choose to take a break. Just like in a regular 9-to-5 job, breaks are important for our mental health. Take time off just like you would normally (there are also certain avenues available to help you take time off, like respite care).
  • Organize your life. Feeling more organized in your personal life might help provide some structure and alleviate other stresses.
  • Take care of yourself. Do not neglect to take care of yourself, because, as they say: You cannot pour from an empty cup. 
  • Talk about your feelings. The more you bottle up your feelings, the harder it is to treat burnout before it’s too late. Talk about how you feel in order to find actionable solutions.
  • Set realistic goals. Being a caregiver is difficult, and your goals should reflect that. Be realistic with yourself about what you can and cannot achieve as a caregiver.
  • Hire respite care services. Respite care is an option when you need a break — you can hire respite care to take care of your loved one for various lengths of time, depending on your needs.
  • Exercise. Exercise is proven to help alleviate stress, so give your brain a mental break with a good workout.

Burnout vs. depression

Many of the symptoms and treatments for burnout align pretty directly with those of depression. That’s because the two are very similar — but there are some key differences that you should know about. Depression is a medical condition that has to do with a chemical imbalance in the brain. Burnout is an outcome of an occupation and usually fades when someone leaves the stress-inducing job.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue and burnout are also very similar and can exist at the same time. While burnout emerges over time, compassion fatigue happens almost immediately after a traumatic incident. Compassion fatigue is a reaction to either direct exposure to trauma (like seeing an accident) or secondary exposure (for instance, by living with someone who’s experienced trauma). By working with someone who’s unable to care for themselves, the caregiver is susceptible to trauma and compassion fatigue. Symptoms of this type of fatigue include insomnia, anger, intense emotions, PTSD and depression.

Bottom line: How to get help for caregiver burnout

It’s important to get help once you start feeling the symptoms of caregiver burnout. Because this is something that happens over time, taking regular breaks can help alleviate the fatigue associated with caring for someone. Hiring respite care or asking a family member to take shifts is a great place to start. If you feel yourself not finding any relief after these small breaks, it may be worth hiring an in-home health service to help you take care of your loved one. If that’s not enough, an assisted living facility or nursing home are other options. While it’s hard to make these decisions, remember that you can care for someone well only if you also take care of yourself.

Article sources
ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
  1. Pew Research Center, “5 facts about family caregivers.” Accessed April 26, 2021.
  2. Cleveland Clinic, “Caregiver Burnout.” Accessed April 26, 2021.
  3. Psychology Today, “Depression and Burnout.” Accessed April 26, 2021.
  4. The American Institute of Stress, “Compassion Fatigue.” Accessed April 26, 2021.
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