How to Care for Yourself While Caring for Others

Person looks down to check on older person in wheelchair outdoors on windswept pathBecoming a caregiver to a loved one means adopting and adapting to new roles and responsibilities and often, to new or heightened emotions. Caregiving may mean significant changes in your lifestyle, employment, finances, schedule, and/or availability. Things may suddenly (or gradually) feel out of balance and overwhelming, and it often takes a lot of work to hold everything together.

The Emotional Impact of Caregiving

Caregiving can take a toll emotionally. Many of the feelings associated with being a caregiver, including guilt, helplessness, resentment, or feeling overly burdened, can leave the caregiver feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes it is not actually the responsibilities of providing care or support that are so overwhelming but the feeling of uncertainty about the future that may just seem too much.

Within the context of providing care, relationships may change. These are often positive changes. Caregiving can facilitate increased closeness, sharing, bonding, and other benefits that come from feeling needed, appreciated, or loved. On the flip side, often resentment can build if the burden of providing care is not distributed evenly among all who could be potential caregivers or if the caregiver feels underappreciated. Alternately, whatever patterns were in the relationship before can become amplified, building on issues that already existed. Sometimes the strain of relationship dynamics can itself be a significant stressor.

The Importance of Caregiver Self-Care

As a caregiver, it may sometimes be hard to recognize you have reached your max until you have actually reached it. Chances are if your resources have been channeled outward into caregiving, you have limited resources for dealing with the stressors you are experiencing. It may feel like a priority to be focused on your own needs when you are providing support for someone else. You may not even be aware of the effect these changes and demands have on your well-being. At whatever point you realize you are feeling overwhelmed (or are approaching overwhelm), it is time to look for support. Alternately, if a loved one observes this in you and shares the observation, it may be wise to be open to receiving this feedback.

Giving yourself permission for self-care is key. Taking time for yourself, engaging in hobbies, exercise, rest, or nurturing your relationships will help strengthen your ability to be a better caregiver both to others as well as to yourself.

Fortunately, there are many available and accessible support resources for caregivers. Individual therapy can be highly beneficial. Taking time for yourself in individual therapy is not self-indulgent; it may provide the space and opportunity for reflection that is otherwise absent. Whether therapy happens in a traditional face-to-face setting or online, one-on-one or in a group setting, it can be beneficial.

Many people find a caregiver support group to be critical to their quality of life while caregiving. The support you can receive from (and provide to) others who are going through similar challenges often cannot be matched by anything else. The feeling of knowing you are not alone in these challenges and that others have felt similarly is powerful. Caregiving can feel isolating; a caregiver support group can provide a sense of connection.

Locating a support group may take some investigating, but there are many options available. Many hospitals offer caregiver support groups focused on applicable health condition (e.g., cancer, diabetes, or substance abuse) as well as more general offerings. Some therapists in private practice also offer group services for caregivers. Should it be challenging to locate an appropriate group locally, or if the available group meets at a time that would prohibit joining, there are many options for group support online as well. Again, locating resources through an organization focused on the health condition related to the person being cared for is a sensible place to start searching.

Another resource for support and other referrals are other caregivers you meet or that others connect you with. Sometimes caregivers connect while in a medical waiting room and can exchange resources and share experiences informally. Other sources of support may exist in places you didn’t think to find them. For example, peer mentors, respite care services, educational workshops, or auxiliary organizations or services addressing a particular topic or stressor, such as financial support, may be able to offer the supplementary support you need to cope with your stress. Many of these resources can be found online or by speaking with professionals involved in the care of your loved one, such as nurses or other health care team members. Any or all of these resources can lead to feeling refreshed and recharged, a clearer perspective, and improved caregiver quality of life.

Finally, it is important to try to maintain whatever balance in your life facilitates your functioning at a healthy level that is reasonable given your demands and stressors. Giving yourself permission for self-care is key. Taking time for yourself, engaging in hobbies, exercising, resting, or nurturing your relationships will help strengthen your ability to be a better caregiver both to others as well as to yourself.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marni Amsellem, PhD, therapist in Trumbull, Connecticut

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Bryanne

    Bryanne

    August 25th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    When I was always taking care of my grandparents my husband would get a little jealous of the time that I had to spend with them, not because he didn’t love them, he did, but because I was taking time away from us at home and he didn’t like that very much

    We worked out some compromises because he knew that this was something very important to me, and I think that we came out of the whole experience stronger as a couple.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    Dr. Marni Amsellem

    August 26th, 2016 at 8:31 AM

    Bryanne,
    Thank you for sharing your story! While it is common to have less time for other relationships, it is not always easy on other relationships. That is great that you and your husband were able to find compromises so that you ultimately grew stronger as a couple as a result of the caregiving experience.

  • siobhan

    siobhan

    August 25th, 2016 at 1:44 PM

    Taking care of yourself is one of the most critical things that you can do, and it becomes especially more important when you are serving as the caregiver for a friend or family member, even an employer.

    No one really realizes the amount of stress that this can place on you when you have to take care of another person and they are depending on you for everything.

    Most of the time it is the caregiver who gets lost in the shuffle in these types of situations.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    Dr. Marni Amsellem

    August 26th, 2016 at 8:34 AM

    Shiobhan,
    Thank you for your comments, which certainly underscore how much strain caregivers can experience, how they are often neglected, and why self-care is so important!

  • shandie

    shandie

    August 26th, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    I think that I would be so overwhelmed with looking after another person that I might not be able to stop and think about what I was missing out on myself.

    Not missing out, maybe that’s not the right term, but you know, what am I ignoring in my own home and in my own life while I am caring for this other person?

    the stress is real, and you can get so caught up in all of that that it can cloud your judgement for sure.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    Dr. Marni Amsellem

    August 29th, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    Thanks for the comment, Shandie. You are right, being a caregiver adds so much more to one’s plate and it is easy to neglect other responsibilities (and your own needs).

  • Val

    Val

    August 26th, 2016 at 1:46 PM

    How about letting someone help you out for a change or give you a day off?

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    Dr. Marni Amsellem

    August 29th, 2016 at 10:17 AM

    Thanks Val, excellent advice, should that be an option!

  • Trey

    Trey

    August 27th, 2016 at 8:47 AM

    Going to therapy can be a great thing but are there really that many dedicated caregivers out there who will actually feel like they have the time to do something like that?
    I think that for the most part these are people who are so wrapped up in the lives of another person that to them it could almost feel selfish if they wanted to take a little time out to do something like that.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    Dr. Marni Amsellem

    August 29th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    Trey, that is a very common belief- that self-care feels selfish. The opposite is true, but caregivers need to give themselves permission to do something like take an hour for therapy, for example. They will be more refreshed after doing so.

  • Tabitha

    Tabitha

    August 29th, 2016 at 8:53 AM

    If there are things in life that continue to give you pleasure then by all means you have to try to maintain that in your life.

  • janey

    janey

    August 31st, 2016 at 11:34 AM

    Support groups are a critical piece of the puzzle that so often get overlooked.
    You might not think that you will be comfortable talking to strangers but I promise you when you go it is going to be like finding a kindred spirit that you would not have otherwise known existed.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    Dr. Marni Amsellem

    September 2nd, 2016 at 1:35 PM

    Thanks for sharing, Janey! This is so often the case.

  • ALTCP.org

    ALTCP.org

    September 19th, 2016 at 3:34 PM

    Thank you for writing this piece. Caregivers really do need to take time off and care for themselves, but so many feel guilty about it. Sometimes, people just need to hear that what they’re feeling is okay and valid, and you’ve done that in your post. We’ve included this in our weekly digest to share with our caregiver readers because we know that this will help them in their current situations. You can see the post here: altcp.org/2016/09/weekly-digest-the-dilemma-of-the-american-caregiver/. We certainly hope to hear more from you in the future!

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    Dr. Marni Amsellem

    September 19th, 2016 at 8:03 PM

    Thank you for the kind post and the encouragement, ALTCP.org! I am glad that this article resonated with you, and I appreciate you sharing this with your community as well! Thank you for sharing your post as well!

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