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How Caregiver Burnout Damages Our Brains

By , 11:54 am on
Tired nurse in dark lighting in Nashville, TN

What is caregiver burnout and how can it be prevented?

Work-related burnout has been widely studied, but there hasn’t been much research specific to caregiver burnout. It’s now appearing to be more than just stressful, but possibly damaging to the brain without the proper precautions.

Caregiver Burnout

Work-related stress and burnout has been well-studied over the past several years, but how about the stress from caregiving? Can a caregiver end up damaging one’s brain by taking care of someone they love? The answer may be yes. The following describes how caregiving wreaks havoc on the brain — along with information as to what can be done about it.

What Does Caregiver Burnout Look Like?

Caregiver burnout mirrors many symptoms of other types of stress and depression and includes exhaustion, anger, withdrawal from relationships and activities, appetite and weight control issues, sleep problems, extreme fatigue, digestive concerns, lowered immunity, and more. Although “Caregiver Syndrome” isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, many healthcare professionals use this term when describing caregiver burnout and its effects.

A post entitled, “The Effects of Caregiver Stress on the Body and Brain,” on the Alzheimer’s Care Resource Center website stated that caregiving can have impact on one’s overall physical health, especially when it lasts for extended periods of time.

The article also says the degree of burnout problems may be relevant to the individual’s genetic traits, education, financial circumstances, and even previous mental conditions. With roughly 70% of caregivers suffering from depression, smart caregiving stress management must begin with self-awareness and noticing any developing symptoms so they can be dealt with as quickly as possible. Chronic stress, like caregiver burnout, can harm your brain as the stress triggers chemical changes in the brain that negatively affect your memory capacity and decrease learning abilities.

Short-term vs. Long-term Stress

The challenging role of caregiving will test emotions and psyche. Short-term stress can make people irritable, anxious, tense, distracted and forgetful, but that’s not the whole story. When caregivers cope with additional stressors through denial of their negative emotions, cortisol levels may increase, and these elevated levels can adversely impact physical, emotional and mental health. Research studies are being done on caregiver risks causing immune and endocrine problems, s well as depression, cardiovascular diseases and an increase in infectious disease and even death. A Huffington Post article warns that turbulent life events “harm your brain’s memory and learning capacity by reducing the volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions.” Stated plainly, chronic stress can shrink the brain.

Tips for Handling Caregiver Burnout Before it Damages your Brain

When stress levels mount (cortisol), commit to improving your brain power with some common sense remedies offered by the Mayo Clinic:

Be open to help. Take a break. Create an ongoing list of items that family, friends or a healthcare professional could help you with – anything from handling errands, going grocery shopping, doing light cooking or simply spending time with the person you’ve been caring for, so you can have some respite.

There is no perfection. You are probably doing a great job caring for your aging loved one so don’t become filled with guilt and paralyzed by striving for perfection.

Small goals. Caregivers tend to run themselves ragged, making Herculean efforts. It’s important to take some time aside to get organized and establish realistic small goals. It’s also a great time to learn to say “no”.

Research community resources. With your list of needs, you may find there are local resources available. Maybe you can enroll in a class relevant to your situation or perhaps there’s a support group that might be of help. Search for services like transportation, meal prep or delivery, and consider having someone else clean the house for a while.

Self- care. Are you getting the proper amount of sleep? Getting exercise and eating well? Drink enough fresh water daily to stay well-hydrated. Don’t lose the view of your own personal health. Make a visit to your own doctor, too.

Respite Care May Help

Often, giving yourself (and your brain) a break by taking time away from the daily grind is the best thing you can do. Respite care can be defined as the short-term care of a dependent person, in order to allow the regular caregiver time to recuperate. This may involve in-home respite, where someone aides your loved one while you relax. Sometimes, an aide provides temporary care while the caregiver has a short vacation or just spends the day taking time to exercise, or get outdoors to bicycle or take a long walk. Visiting with friends can be just what is needed.

A family caregiver does vitally important work for a family. If you are a caregiver, remember to work on your own stress management. If you start to experience the symptoms of burnout, don’t hesitate to ask for help. The best way possible to care for your loved one is to look after yourself first.