Managing Stress When You’re a Caregiver

34 million Americans provide care to older adults, nine million of them assisting someone with dementia. Assisting those with basics needs through a prolonged incapacitation is both mentally and physically stressful. About three quarters of caregivers are women, usually a wife or adult daughter, and many studies show female caregivers suffer more anxiety and depression from the emotional stress of caregiving than males do. Caregivers may also have increased blood pressure and insulin levels, be immunocompromised and at increased risk for heart disease. Elderly spousal caregivers have a 63% higher mortality rate than non-caregivers of the same age. Family caregivers experiencing extreme stress have been shown to age prematurely. This level of stress can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver’s life.

You may love the person you’re caring for dearly, but the job of caregiving can be so relentlessly taxing that burnout is a real concern. If you find yourself in the position of helping a family member in need, it’s important for your own well-being and theirs that you pay attention to symptoms of too much stress: mental overload, emotional and physical exhaustion, feeling of lack of connection with others, less regard for the person you’re caring for or decreased self-worth. Any of these can affect the quality of your caregiving, impair your relationships and hurt your health. Here are some HeartMath tips for getting yourself back on track:

  • Ask for help. Get support from other family members or social services. It can be hard to let others help with sensitive tasks. You may feel guilty, but you can’t do your loved one any good if you’re out of commission. Respite care is available in every community. Call the Eldercare Hotline at 800-677-1116 to help you get local assistance.
  • Take good care of yourself. Your own health is a priority right now. Maintain a healthy diet, get sufficient exercise, and talk to your health professional about taking immune-boosting supplements. Exercising regularly and getting enough quality sleep is crucial to reducing stress and giving you the energy and wellness your big job requires.
  • Learn HeartMath’s “Go to Neutral” technique.
    • When emotional triggers come up, take a time-out in the heart so that you can temporarily disengage from your thoughts and feelings — especially stressful ones.
    • Shift your focus to the area around your heart. Now feel your breath coming in through your heart and out through your solar plexus (stomach area).
    • Tell yourself “Go to Neutral” and not to go one way or the other in your thoughts or feelings about the issue. Hold to Neutral until your emotions and your perceptions ease up. There you can ask yourself questions like, “What if it’s not like I’m thinking it is?” “What if there’s something I don’t know?” “What if I really don’t know?” This opens up new possibilities and lets your wise self talk to your disturbed self. Practice this technique at least a dozen times to build your “Neutral muscle”.
  • Practice appreciation and gratitude as a default habit in your life. Focusing on positive feelings and attitudes activate the body’s biochemical systems that help to diminish stress and stabilize your psyche. Try HeartMath’s emWave® 2 or Inner Balance app, our award-winning stress-busting tools. Using this portable feedback device to get into heart coherence, you can transform tension into relaxation and clarity.

When my father got congestive heart failure, my parents wanted to move into an assisted living center near me on the West Coast and have me take care of them. My brother on the East Coast was only working part-time and really wanted our parents to move out there near him and let him do the caregiving. Their grandkids were there, too. It was a stressful time trying to make the right decision for all of us. So I went to my heart and used some of the HeartMath tools to get clarity on what I should do. I knew that I would not be able to give them as much time as they would need. I didn’t want to disappoint them because we were so close, but it was obvious that they would get more care with my brother. It would be best for them. I told them how I sincerely felt and, while they were disappointed, they went east, found a great assisted living place near my brother and were very happy. Dad passed away three years later. Mom stayed on and eventually needed an in-house aide within the assisted living facility. It was so clear that we had made the right decision. If I hadn’t used my tools to get aligned and clear on what was best for all of us, I would’ve caved and created a lot of unnecessary stress for myself and them.

Caregiving is never an easy undertaking, but if you thoughtfully and heartfully manage the stress that can come with it – or in making decisions around it – you can actually enjoy the honor that it is to help that special someone who needs you now more than ever.

younger and older women

Click here for a Free HeartMath Family Caregiver’s guide to Coping with Stress.


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Maggie Kearns
Maggie Kearns1 years ago

Thanks Deborah! Good advice!

Sheri J.
Sheri J.1 years ago

I do what I can when I can. Sometimes I have to reschedule my grandpa's appointments if it's not an emergency just so I can get respite.

Sheri J.
Sheri J.1 years ago

as a caregiver, getting adequate sleep is like a vacation to me. i'm not afraid to say that i appreciate the rest and all the tv watching i can get when i'm getting respite.

Sheri J.
Sheri J.1 years ago

i stumbled upon this article again. i need to add this to my favorites.

Sheri J.
Sheri J.2 years ago

More stress releases:

- watch a comedy on youtube. i am a fan of carol burnett, mama's family, sanford and son and other vintage programs. i also like anything by robin williams the actor/comedian, george lopez, and russell peters

- sing karaoke like no one is watching. youtube has a lot of free karaoke.

- dance like no one is watching.

any other suggestions feel free to comment.

Sheri J.
Sheri J.2 years ago

Also, write a prescription to yourself to spend time in nature. Nature naturally raises your vibration and it is one of the highest vibrations out there. So when you are in a high vibration, you have more energy and are more positive so you could tackle the stressors in your life. Find a park you are drawn to and frequent it as often as possible for your health.

Sheri J.
Sheri J.2 years ago

A lot of times caregivers can not get the support they need from their own families so the support comes from another source - home health agencies and government companies have a lot of resources just ask around like I did.

Sheri J.
Sheri J.2 years ago

Take your loved one to adult daycare. Where we are located, my grandpa's medicaid pays for up to 5 weekdays and that includes his breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Adult daycare is beneficial for the caregiver to get respite for themselves and/or so they can continue working and it benefits your loved one to get mental stimulation, physical activity (if any), and socialization.
Check with your loved one's medicaid and other insurances they have to see if it covers adult daycare and any other caregiver respite programs.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra2 years ago

Thank you Deborah, for Sharing this!

Genoveva M.
Genoveva M G.2 years ago

Thanks for sharing this article.