How Caregivers Can Avoid Burnout and Stay Mentally Healthy

daughter taking care of sick mother

“In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.” – Dalai Lama

I once worked with a client named Patrick who came to therapy feeling anxious and overwhelmed by what he had recently been experiencing. As a young professional he was trying to balance all the facets of his life. He was dating and trying to maintain a healthy social life. Patrick was also struggling with caring for his aging mother who had several medical and emotional issues to sort through.

As many therapists will tell you, caring for others is one of the greatest experiences we can have as humans. There is research that caring for others and demonstrating compassion outwardly, such as volunteering, may help us feel better within ourselves both physically and mentally.

Nonetheless, we also know caring for others can sometimes be a daunting and even thankless experience. Many of us who find ourselves caring for others often lose our balance. We even begin to view our self-care as being selfish. We may say to ourselves, “I can’t take this time off. What will happen when I’m gone?”

Research tells us that my client Patrick is not alone. According to the the National Alliance for Caregiving, in collaboration with AARP, roughly 45.5 million people in the United States have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last year.

During therapy Patrick and I worked together on envisioning a life for himself that included being able to live his own life as fully as possible while caring for his sick mother. He admitted that the days of meeting women out socially had fallen out of priority and that he also found himself less and less motivated to get to work everyday.

The pressure to do everything well was overwhelming and he felt he had to do it all alone. His siblings weren’t as active in taking on the role of caregiver. He was envious of their apparent freedoms, despite taking pride in taking care of his mother. He also relished the quality time he got to spend with her.

He had grown weary, though. He found himself visiting with her less and less. He was starting to burn out.

One of the first tasks I invited Patrick to do was call upon his many travel experiences for work.

“When you get on a plane and the attendants give out safety instructions, what do they say about that oxygen mask? You have to put it on yourself first before you assist other passengers, right?”

Patrick knew this but admitted he hadn’t given himself permission to have a life outside of caring for his mother. Throughout our time together we worked on slowly creating that balance for himself and inviting others to help support him. It’s the same message the Caregiver Action Network reminds us of: “Take care to give care.”

Creating balance between self and showing compassion and care for others is difficult. Caregivers are at risk of experiencing burnout. Here are some tips to keep you supporting the people you care about while also showing yourself the same care and compassion.

Give Support But Also Seek Support

Taking on the brunt of caregiving responsibilities can weigh heavily on you emotionally. Just as you take time out of your day to give support, create some safe spaces in which you can seek out support from friends, family members, or a therapist.

Keep Tabs on Your Physical Health

Sometimes when we are so busy caring for others, we can let our own natural needs fall by the wayside. For many caregivers that can mean skipping meals or not getting enough rest. Create daily opportunities to honor your basic needs.

Remember That Self-Care Is the Key to Avoiding Burnout

Some caregivers demonstrate something called compassion fatigue. This is an emotional sense of burnout that can keep you from being an effective caregiver. People who have experienced compassion fatigue have described feeling helpless, anxious, and angry at times. Practicing regular, consistent self-care can help ward off burnout and help you continue to support your loved one like Patrick did.

Providing care is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have, but it isn’t without its costs. We have to be diligent in practicing a balanced approach to caregiving so we don’t feel completely overwhelmed as Patrick was when he entered my office.

Published by

Jor-El Caraballo

Talkspace Therapist