Burnout. We hear the term all the time, but what does it mean exactly? Burnout is “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” If any part of that definition strikes home, you may be close to or already experiencing caregiver burnout.
My husband battled cancer for 5 years. It was a long and arduous battle. In the beginning, we both felt strong and determined. But about three and half years in, the struggle started to weigh on us. As his partner and caregiver, I was emotionally exhausted by the constant roller coaster of emotions I was experiencing. My constant worry and stress impacted my sleep and left me physically exhausted each day. The day-to-day coping with cancer and all it involved took a toll on me mentally. I remember saying to myself, “I can’t keep doing this!”
If you are nearing caregiver burnout or already feeling it, you are not alone. However, it’s no way to live, and it can seriously affect your health if you don’t make adjustments soon! This blog will discuss ways to recognize the signs of caregiver burnout so that you can take action before heading into this dangerous place.
Why is Caregiving So Stressful?
Caregiving is stressful because of the emotional, physical, and mental toll it takes. Spousal caregivers aren’t just responsible for physically helping their spouse attend doctor appointments, take medicine, or get around as needed. They also provide their partner emotional support while, at the same time, struggling to cope with their own emotions. A spousal caregiver also takes on many responsibilities their spouse used to handle but now can’t. On top of that, there is a unique balance between being a spousal caregiver and being just a spouse. Finding that balance, being a caregiver and a spouse, and knowing when to be one over the other is not easy, often leading to caregiver burnout.
What are the Signs of Caregiver Burnout?
Burnout for a caregiver means you’ve hit a point where everything becomes too much. You feel like you can no longer continue the way you have been. You feel intense fatigue, frustration, stress, and even despair. You begin to feel like you can no longer care for yourself or your spouse.
If you feel like you have reached this point, I must emphasize how important it is to seek the help of a doctor or mental health professional. However, my goal in this article is to teach you the signs of burnout so you can recognize them and make adjustments before needing medical intervention.
Below are some of the common signs of caregiver burnout. It is quite normal for caregivers to experience many of these symptoms from time to time. It is when you start to feel most or all these emotions all the time AND are struggling just to get through the day that you may be heading into a danger zone.
You might be experiencing burnout if…
- You feel isolated and lonely–you spend most of your time either caring for your spouse or taking care of other responsibilities with your job or family. You feel lonely and alone in what you’re going through.
- You are constantly tired–you are unable to get a good night’s rest, and even when you do, you wake up feeling tired with little to no energy to go about your day.
- You feel resentful toward your spouse–you know it isn’t your spouse’s fault that they have cancer, but you can’t help but resent that their sickness has changed your life forever.
- You’re constantly anxious–you can’t seem to find a moment of peace between waiting for test results, getting calls from doctors, and not knowing what the future holds. Even when you get good news, the anxiety doesn’t cease.
- You feel angry most of the time–you are angry at everything and everybody most of the time. It’s impacting your relationship with your spouse and kids and your work, but you can’t seem to let the anger go.
- You neglect your emotional and physical needs–you focus so much time and energy on your spouse’s needs that you no longer take care of yourself physically or emotionally.
All of these are tell-tale signs of experiencing caregiver burnout. The good news is there are ways to overcome these feelings and finally experience some peace and relief.
Stop Caregiver Burnout Before it Becomes Too Much
Feeling burnt out is not uncommon, but it doesn’t mean you have to live in complete exhaustion and emotional turmoil all the time. There are things you can do to overcome these stresses.
1. Define Your Role as a Caregiver for Yourself
One of the biggest challenges spousal caregivers face is that they try to do too much. They feel they need to be everything for their partner while maintaining the household, raising kids, and working. Caregivers tend to take responsibility for things that are not in their control, like trying to make their partner feel better or feeling responsible for finding a cure. This contributes to caregiver burnout because they end up feeling frustrated and powerless trying to control things they can’t.
The solution to this problem is to take time and define the role of “caregiver” for yourself. When you take time and decide from a place of calm what is most important to you and who you want to be during this time, you can define this significant role for yourself. Doing this will create boundaries that allow you to stay focused on only the most important things. For steps on how to do this, read 6 Steps To Defining Your New Role When Your Partner Has Cancer.
2. Take a Break!
You need to have some time apart from your spouse. You need breaks emotionally, physically, and mentally. But the breaks aren’t going to present themselves. You must plan to take breaks, whether asking a family member to take your place one night a week or having the kids go to a friend’s house on Tuesdays to minimize your responsibilities for one evening. Breaks are essential for your sanity and to maintain your energy. They are not a luxury; they are a necessity.
I can’t emphasize this enough. As a spousal caregiver, you may feel like you need to be there all the time. And, there may be critical periods (like just after surgery or a serious downturn in your partner’s health) when you want to be there as much as you can. But during other times when things are not at a critical point, make sure you are taking regular breaks.
This is often a long journey for both of you, and you need to maintain energy. Finding and doing something that gives you a break throughout your week is one way to overcome caregiver burnout. It could be as simple as listening to your favorite music while you get ready in the mornings. During a time when there is more heartache than happiness, breaks are essential. Read Refilling The Tank for more ideas!
3. Build Your Mental Resilience
Part of burnout comes from the mental turmoil most spousal caregivers experience. All the questions, fears, and worries can be exhausting. But this is something you can handle once you know how. When going through a crisis, it is normal for your brain to find all kinds of things to worry about and stress over. While not particularly helpful, it’s a normal human response. Instead of letting your fears take you down a rabbit hole, start a journal and write them out on paper. Then recognize that most of what you write is just a thought. It’s not the truth or a prediction of what will happen. It’s a thought your brain generates while under stress. Once you learn how to manage your mind, you can learn to recognize and check your negative thoughts before they exhaust you.
4. Acknowledge and Allow Your Emotions
From the outset, I want to tell you that you will experience many positive and negative emotions during this journey. It’s like a roller coaster. You may want to get off the roller coaster, but that is simply impossible because emotions are part of the human experience. However, you may be unintentionally adding to your emotional suffering by judging or feeling guilty for the emotions you are having.
Having difficult emotions like anger, resentment, or guilt is normal, and it doesn’t mean anything has gone wrong. Instead of judging yourself, practice acknowledging your feelings and allowing yourself to feel them. Allowing yourself to feel the hard stuff will create room to recognize and feel the good stuff. By doing this, you will not let your emotions overpower your ability to care and be present for yourself and your spouse.
5. Lean on Your Support System
Don’t try to go it alone! You need a support system. A good support system is a network of people who can physically or emotionally help you and your spouse during this journey. Your network doesn’t need to be big but should include people who can provide practical support, like helping with errands and chores, as well as people who can be there for you emotionally. The best place to start is to say “Yes!” when people offer to help! Read more tips for creating a support system: 6 Ways to Build Your Caregiver Support System When Your Partner has Cancer.
6. Connect with Other Caregivers
Feeling completely alone in caregiving for your spouse with cancer propels caregiver burnout. Sometimes connecting with others who are in a similar situation can help. There are people all over the world going through a similar experience and caregiving for their spouse with cancer. Sometimes the best caregiver support system comes from people you don’t know but who know what you’re going through. You might find connection and support in a caregiver support group through your local hospital or online. I offer a free Facebook Group for people caring for a partner with cancer. You can go here to join: Stronger Together – when your partner has cancer.
Address the Signs of Caregiver Burnout with Coaching for Spousal Caregivers
As a life coach for you when your spouse has cancer, I help you build your mental resilience and emotional capacity to avoid caregiver burnout. You deserve support and guidance during this time, and my goal is to help you navigate this journey with less stress and overwhelm and more peace. Let’s talk about how I can help you do that today!