Caregiver Overwhelm – 7 Strategies to Lower Stress and Increase Resilience

Andrea and AbigailIt is now week 7 for me as primary caregiver to my 82-year old mother who has dementia and is nearly blind. It has been challenging, stressful and overwhelming mentally, physically and emotionally. Becoming irritable, snappy and tired are but a few of the signs of stress and caregiver fatigue which have prompted me to up my game in practicing what I preach. That is, pulling out every strategy I know to lower my stress response and avoid burnout.

In this post I share 7 strategies to lower stress and increase resilience. They are good resilience boosters for everyone, but particularly helpful for caregivers to remember.

Learn all of the 7 Tips on my HuffingtonPost blog.

Lately I have been sleep deprived as my mother has not been sleeping at night. Well, she doesn’t sleep in the daytime either! In fact, she will spend day and night talking to imaginary patients in her medical clinic. As a physician my mother was very proud to be sought after for more than prescriptions and medical exams, she was the go-to doc for insight and inspiration for better living. She was known to dispense advice on relationships, self-esteem and even career planning.

Now at 82, of all the complaints she has, not being able to counsel and help people are ranked as high as not being able to see and not being able to walk well. While hallucinations are often seen in patients with dementia, I wonder if hers are a self-soothing mechanism to ease her sense of loss.

The feeling of uselessness due to a lack of productivity is one I know well. I first encountered this sense of loss during the first few months of being a mother. It seemed that I went from being highly functional and productive to becoming a breastfeeding-on-demand bottle washer and diaper changer.

So I can empathize with what mom feels now. It is heartbreaking to feel that what you do best, that which you have enjoyed with great pride is no longer an option. So while I recognize that my own shift toward being a full-time caretaker is associated with a certain ‘loss’ of my personal freedom, I am filled with compassion knowing that for me it is temporary – for her it is not.

But as the lack of sleep takes its toll on me, I do notice my thoughts drifting toward the dark side. Responding with negativity feels all too convenient to unexpected phone calls, a need to run to the grocery store, or an explanation for the 20th time in the last hour that we are now in France. Experts say that recognizing signs of caregiver burnout is the first step. Next, it is time for resilience and stress relieving strategies!

Burnout and stress-related illness are very common among those who care for elderly, terminally ill patients and people with special needs. In addition to the physical depletion, the emotional symptoms cited most with caregiver burnout and overwhelm include feeling isolated, helpless and overburdened. But many of us are afraid to voice those tender feelings out of fear of judgment.

 

TIP # 1 : EXPRESS, DON’T REPRESS

While it is tempting to stay silent, nearly every expert in caregiving explains that we must talk about our experiences – even the negative emotions we feel. Venting actually helps to lower your stress response and it also allows others the chance to be there for us. While it can be difficult to appear ‘weak’ to others, we must be mindful that repressing our challenging emotions makes us more vulnerable to exploding later.

Clinical psychologists explain that when we identify or name our stressful emotions, we engage a part of the brain associated with rational thinking, the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain typically goes ‘off line’ when we are stressed as the lower, reptilian brain engages in the fight-or-flight response. Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight and Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, calls the technique “Name it to tame it” and explains that we can integrate the left and right hemispheres of the brain to calm us down.

As I shared recently at a TEDx presentation, in the first step of the Attunement Meditation I teach for reducing stress and anxiety we become consciously aware of our feelings and emotions. And my patients are often surprised at just how much more space and control they feel when they call out these feelings, rather than stuff them away. And control in the moment is gained little by little. So practice is necessary.

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Learn the rest of the  7 Tips on my HuffingtonPost blog.

Wishing you joy, love and optimal wellbeing,

Dr. Andrea

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If you are a caregiver and want free stress-relieving meditations and mindfulness resources, please check out my Stress Less Chill Kit at www.AndreaPennington.com/StressLess

Dr. Andrea is your personal empowerment and transformation catalyst. She is a respected integrative medicine physician, acupuncturist & author specializing in longevity, sexuality and life transformation with positive psychology and mindfulness. With multiple appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Oz and CNN she is recognized globally as a medical-wellness expert inspiring and teaching you how to live with vitality & purpose.

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