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Suffering from Caregiver Syndrome? It’s time to take care of yourself

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

A caregiver helping an elderly woman on cane to the elevator

In Illinois alone, there are an estimated 1.5 million family caregivers who, when combined, dedicate 1.4 million hours a year to caring for family members. These individuals perform incredible roles, sacrificing their time, finances, and more to ensure their loved ones get the care they need.

For many of these caregivers, the stress of managing this can leave its toll on them and many experience mental health challenges as a result. This phenomenon is known as Caregiver Syndrome.

What is Caregiver Syndrome?

Caregiver Syndrome is not recorded as an official medical illness or condition, and yet it is widely recognized as a cause for concern among physicians. Employers too are beginning to recognize the negative effect caring for others can have on mental health, with 72% of employed caregivers reporting symptoms of clinical depression.

While it’s true that many of the signs or symptoms are shared with other types of mental health problems, it’s worth shining a light on it in particular as it has some unique characteristics.

Feelings of guilt

The mark of Caregiver Syndrome is when a carer neglects their own needs, whether physical or emotional, because they are dedicating their time to someone else. Unlike many similar mental health circumstances, this particular one is triggered by a mixture of love, stress, and guilt.

Guilt, specifically, is very difficult for carers to control. While they may require time to relax or unwind, the guilt they feel at spending time on themselves means they never get the chance to disconnect.

Undefined roles

A key characteristic of being a caregiver is not understanding what your role actually involves. According to the National Patient Advocate Foundation, as quoted by Supportiv:

“Many people step up to help a loved one who is sick because they believe that is what is expected of them as a family member or friend. However, being a caregiver and assuming that role is so much more than kinship or spending time together; it involves taking on many unplanned or extra actions to help someone who is sick maintain their quality of life and wellbeing.”

This gray nature of caregiving can lead to issues as family members may be contributing to the feelings of pressure and stress. Without set boundaries, conflicting expectations from different parties leads to frustration and disagreements.

Need more information? Watch this webinar by Mental Health America, entitled “Who Cares for the Caregiver?”

What Caregiver Syndrome sufferers experience

The toll it takes on carers who suffer from this can be both mental and physical.

The mental toll

Generally speaking, the mental toll takes the form of depression and anxiety. The common symptoms of becoming less communicative, irritable, and withdrawn often apply.

The physical toll

A number of physical symptoms can accompany these mental issues, including changes in sleep patterns and loss of appetite – leading to weight loss. Conversely, they could turn to food as a source of comfort and experience unnatural weight gain.

They may also experience frequent headaches, high blood pressure, a compromised immune system, or other medical problems.

What should caregivers do?

Given the nature of their work, the temptation to ignore the symptoms and carry on as normal can be strong. This is the opposite of what they should do.

Instead, caregivers should take one or more of the following steps:

Seek medical support

Just as you would for depression or anxiety, individuals should reach out to their doctor for help. Even just taking the first step and talking about it can help. That said, doctors or other medical professionals will have resources at their disposal to aid caregivers in their recovery.

Take a step back

Depending on the situation, it may not be possible to give up all responsibilities of care, but someone suffering from Caregiver Syndrome should attempt to do it as much as possible.

Whether it’s a case of taking a long break from the care or drawing better boundaries, it’s essential to get some kind of relief.

Consider outsourcing

If possible, carers should consider getting outside help, even for specific tasks. Having a professional available who can share the load can relieve the burden and allow them to get a better life balance.

There are a number of resources available for outsourcing. For example, the National Institute on Aging offers a number of respite care options. There are options for financial support, specific care services, and a locator service to help you find the best option available.

Home services program

The state offers a Home Services Program for individuals who require respite services for the severely disabled, including a personal assistant and meal delivery. Visit the website to find out more about this service.

Specific task outsourcing

If a carer requires limited or specific support to ease the burden, specific task outsourcing can be useful. For example, the website can take care of a carer’s grocery needs, freeing them up for other tasks or to take time for themselves.

Join a support group

It’s common for carers to feel alone and that nobody else understands their situation. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth – as the National Alliance for Caregiving is quick to point out. Many other individuals will be experiencing the same challenges and there are groups set up for support.

In Illinois, for example, there are government-run groups to help people suffering from Caregiver Syndrome. One example is the Illinois Department on Aging, which has a Caregiver Support Program for people in this situation.

Focus on what you can control

Sometimes being a caregiver can be accompanied by a feeling of losing control. So much of your life is wrapped up in another’s, with few definitive boundaries, that it can be hard to feel that you own anything.

While medical help or group support is essential, it’s also good to practice mindfulness exercises that allow you to increase your sense of ownership. Stop and ask yourself: what can I control?

By focusing on the areas of your life that are entirely yours, it can help to minimize the spiraling effects of declining mental health.

Above all – let go of guilt

Caregivers do incredible work for their family and the community at large. When they begin to struggle, the work they do cannot come at the expense of their own health or wellbeing.

One of the main characteristics of Caregiver Syndrome is the issue of guilt. If you’re struggling and you feel a strong sense of guilt, you need to know that it’s not your fault.

What you’re feeling is a natural side effect of stress and overwork. Take the time to look after yourself. You deserve it.

For more help or advice, please contact us on our website.


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