Most family caregivers are familiar with the range of emotions that result from the all encompassing task. Consider the following very common emotions that most caregivers experience.
1. Caregivers may get angry for reasons both direct (a balky loved one, unfair criticism, one too may mishaps in one day) and indirect (lack of sleep, frustration over lack of control, pent-up disappointment). The caregiver must consider his/her own health. Chronic anger has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attack and heart conditions, digestive disorders, and headaches. Anger can place relationships at risk. Managing caregiver anger not only helps your well-being but makes you less likely to take out your fury on a loved one.
Consider: Rather than trying to avoid anger, learn to express it in healthy ways. Simple deep-breathing exercises can channel anger into a calmer state. Talk yourself down with soothing chants: “It’s okay. Let it go.” Ask yourself if there is a constructive solution to situations that make you angry. Laughing at absurd and idiotic behavior can provide a healthier release than snapping.
2. Worry is caused by love, and wanting the best for your loved one. Worry ultimately triggers more worry and upset because it doesn’t accomplish anything. Being concerned is harmless. Over worry and obsessing, however, can disrupt sleep, cause headache and stomach aches, and lead to mindless eating or under-eating. Remember what Mark Twain once said, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened” (reality is not as bad as the worry).
Consider: Flip the negative thoughts to their productive side: How can you help? Who can you call? Are there possible solutions? And don’t be shy about seeking out a trained counselor to help you express and redirect obsessive worrying more constructively. Fantasize of the good.
3. Loneliness – Friends may back away out of uncertainty or a belief they aren’t wanted. Intense time demands lead you to drop out of outside activities. If you’re dealing with dementia or other condition that alters personality or behavior, the loss of your loved one’s former companionship is another keenly felt loss adding to isolation. People with large, rich social networks have different brain structures, new research finds. Loneliness seems to curb willpower and the ability to persevere, and it can lead to overeating, smoking, and overuse of alcohol.
Consider: Expand your social circles, real and virtual. Arrange respite help, so you can add at least one outside activity, such as one you’ve dropped. Take the initiative to reach out to old friends and invite them over if you can’t get out easily. Consider joining a support group related to caregiving or your loved one’s illness. In online forums, you can find kinship with those who know just what you’re going through. Taking care of a loved one is stressful to most caregivers. There’s never enough time for yourself – or so it seems, but meeting your own needs is vital for both you and the person you’re caring for. Care for yourself, so you can care for them.
4. Guilt arises from doing or saying what you believe is the wrong thing; not doing or saying what you think to be enough or not always being perfect. Caregivers often burden themselves with “oughts,” “shoulds”, and “musts.” Such as: “I must avoid putting Mom in a nursing home.” “I ought to visit everyday.” “I shouldn’t lose my temper with someone who has dementia.” Caregiver guilt is an especially corrosive emotion because you’re beating yourself up over faults that are imagined, unavoidable – or simple human.
Consider: Lower your standards from ideal to real. Ask yourself what’s triggering the guilt: A rigid “ought”? An unrealistic belief about your abilities? Above all, recognize that guilt is unavoidable. Your intentions may be good, but your time, resources, and skills are limited.
5. Caregivers often feel put-upon and upset because of slights by others, especially siblings and other adult children won’t do enough to help. It is pretty normal to feel your life has been hijacked by the responsibility of caring for another. Without enough support or no caregiving outlets, feelings of being ignored, abandoned, or criticized can fester into anger.
Consider: Try venting in a journal or anonymous blog. Know that resentment is a very natural and common response to long-term caregiving, especially if your work, marriage, health, or outside activities are compromised as a result. You can feel this emotion and still be a good person and a good caregiver.
6. Grief comes along with coping with chronic illness, especially when witnessing losses in your loved one’s abilities, and the grief associated with what might have been that is lost forever.
Consider: Know that your feelings are normal. Allow yourself to feel sadness and express it to your loved one as well as to supportive others. Make time for yourself so that you’re living a life outside of caregiving that will support you both now and later.
7. Defensiveness – Protecting yourself is good – to a point. When you’re doing so much, it’s only natural to bristle at suggestions that there might be different or better approaches. While nobody knows your loved one and your situation as well as you do, being overly defensive can make you closed-minded. You risk losing out on real help. You may be so close to the situation that you can’t see the forest for the trees.
Consider: Try not to take everything you hear personally. Instead of getting cross or discarding others’ input, vow to pause long enough to consider it. Remember the big picture. Is there merit in a new idea, or not? What you’re hearing as a criticism of you might be a well-intentioned attempt to help your loved one. You may decide things are fine as is, and that’s great, but if you start from a point of calm and confidence, the focus remains your loved one – as it should – not on you.