When you think about stress, what comes to mind? Financial, work-related, marital/relationship, caregiving, or family stress?
As a physician, I often relate to the impact medical stress has on our health and the function and performance of our bodies. Examples of medical stress include infections, surgery, and injuries, such as an auto accident.
In reality, medical and emotional stress each result in reactions in our bodies with the release of hormones, neurochemicals, and other substances that create inflammation of various organ systems in our bodies.
As each of us reflects on the stress we endure daily, we can understand how each stressor can affect our health, how we feel, and how we age.
The Often Overlooked Stress Associated with Caregiving
There is also the sinister and often overlooked stress associated with caregiving. It is a serious and underappreciated stress-inducing phenomena in society. I cannot emphasize enough that this insidious stress is just as hazardous as having any of the medical or physiological stresses I have mentioned earlier and that carries a similar hazard as smoking or diabetes.
Those who are caregivers start with the best of intentions of providing care (often to a family member or friend). But eventually, they find themselves in a situation that provokes the stress associated with dissatisfaction, guilt, anger, frustration, grief, and feeling trapped.
Even for paid employees, caregiving provokes many of the same emotions, but as a family member, the stress from these emotions can become disabling. Those providing care can neglect many of the elements that would help them remain healthy.
We know caregivers are making enormous sacrifices, neglecting sleep, diet, physical activity, socialization, connections with others, and finding alone time to unwind.
On top of all of this, caregivers have a tendency to not ask for help and not delegate responsibilities. They enter a vicious downward spiral, which can put them at risk of not being able to provide any semblance of caregiving with the ultimate development of crisis. If the caregiver becomes ill, who will take care of the care recipient? There is data that shows that spouses providing care often die before their loved one.
Solutions to Help Caregivers
Repeatedly, I have seen this drama play out, and it is preventable and avoidable. As a physician, I have spent much of my career trying to prevent disease before it becomes apparent and life threatening.
Often, I have discovered that people are stubborn. Some find themselves in situations from which escape seems impossible. For many, there is a failure to accept help.
So, what can be done? There are solutions.
- Establish a well-thought-out plan from the very start; one that includes escape valves and individuals who can provide help or a bailout.
- Ask for and accept help or relief when offered.
- Know your limitations and avoid overextending
- Have a plan that includes respite, someone to provide relief; a 24/7/365 without relief is doomed to fail.
- Take care of your own physical and mental health. A major crisis will develop if you, the caregiver, becomes ill or incapacitated.
- Take time for yourself. You will need to get away for periods to shop, see a movie, or be with friends.
- Attend support groups if appropriate.
- Remember the Power of 5 components as they apply to maintaining your own health; address stress with (or learn) meditation, maintain a healthy diet, get 7-8 hours of sleep each night, exercise, and maintain connections with others.
Addressing these needs is essential to addressing any stressful situation, especially the stress associated with caregiving.
To a long and healthy life,
David Bernstein, MD
P.S. If you missed our earlier blog post on stress, it’s worth the read. Every bit helps.