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Caregiver Burnout Is Real: How to Recognize It, Prevent It, and Deal with It

By: William H. Reading, MD and Teresa Cox Reading, RN

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Whether you are a physician making early morning rounds in a hospital, a nurse walking the long halls of a corridor to their patients’ rooms, a therapist in private practice with a child on the spectrum, a childcare worker employed in a daycare, a health aide in a nursing home working with a patient with dementia, a mother homeschooling her children, or an adult child taking care of an aged parent with health problems, you are ALL caregivers. AND, in time, you will have a lot on your plate. If you work long enough, and the situation is complex, you may feel, at times, that “enough is enough,” sooner than you think. Possibly (let’s call it out), even fed up.

Stress can lead to more stress and possibly burnout. But what is “caregiver burnout,” and how do you first recognize it, deal with it, and even prevent it from happening? What is work/life balance? These are all great questions. Let’s examine the technical term “caregiver.”

What Is a Caregiver?

You may envision a caregiver in your mind’s eye as a nursing aide helping patients of a home health agency or a family member stepping in to help a parent or other family member who is unable to care for themselves. Both are correct. The American Heritage 

Medical Dictionary defines a caregiver as: An individual, such as a physician, nurse, or social worker who assists in the identification, prevention, or treatment of an illness or disability; An individual, such as a family member or guardian who takes care of a child or dependent adult.

What Is Caregiver Burnout?

Is caregiver burnout a real term? Yes. It is a form of mental, physical, emotional and total exhaustion. To prevent it, it’s important caregivers take care of themselves, too. We all know that when there is an emergency on an airplane, we must put on our own oxygen mask before we put on our child’s. The same thing applies to caregivers. We must look after ourselves in order to look after someone else. But do we actually do so? We may even educate others, and have it all together, till we unexpectedly realize we are on that other path that leads to burnout.

What Are the Signs of Burnout?

How do we recognize the signs of burnout? It may feel like depression, and some of the signs are the same, for example: We feel completely exhausted in every way; we have trouble getting out of bed, going to work, or even doing anything; we have low motivation; and we get easily irritated with others and especially ourselves. Other signs include: We feel overwhelmed, we constantly procrastinate, we allow our necessary daily activities to slide, we feel hopeless, we can’t make decisions easily, we have a predisposition for isolating and withdrawing, we are easily angered and raise our voices often, we are unable to initiate sleep or maintain it, we fall into substance abuse, we under or overeat, we feel resentment, we feel guilty about taking time for ourselves, and our work performance is reduced.

What Is the Difference Between Burnout and Depression?

While burnout and depression share many of the same signs, they are not the same. Clinical Depression is a diagnosis and mental health condition, whereas burnout arises from the external environment. You can experience both at the same time. But what causes burnout in one person may not cause it in the next. Depression does not cause burnout, though burnout may contribute to depression. Burnout is the result of being exposed to unrelenting stress with all the demands that accompany it.

How Do We Prevent Caregiver Burnout?

To prevent caregiver burnout, we must be realistic about our limits and expectations. We are not made to be real superheroes. It is also important to take a break every day by doing something you like to do in a space away from work. And don’t forget to keep in touch with family and friends. You need time with others, so don’t isolate yourself with the one you care for. Proper sleep, nutrition, activity, and rest, are essential. You also might want to try writing your feelings and emotions in a journal to stay in touch with yourself.

What Do We Do if We Experience Caregiver Burnout?

If you do get caregiver burnout, joining a support group with people who have similar responsibilities, enables you to share your ideas and challenges in a meaningful and results-oriented manner.

We all need to balance our work life with our personal life. Being a caregiver, in whatever setting, can be challenging, exhausting, and demanding, but it can also be rewarding. Balancing your work and your life is not only helpful, it is also necessary. Be caring, be kind, and think wisely in helping yourself and others. By doing so, you are less likely to fall victim to caregiver burnout.

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William H. Reading, MD and Teresa Cox Reading, RN run The Offices of William H. Reading, MD, Recovery, Psychiatric, and TMS services (which just recently partnered with Geode Health), a neuropsychiatric practice in Stafford, Texas. Dr. Reading has an undergraduate degree from UT Austin and a Doctor of Medicine from the Medical School at UTSA. As well as being a practicing physician, he has been an educator and an assistant professor for over five years and is the author of numerous articles for professional publications. Teresa received her nursing degree from Excelsior College. As registered nurse and practice administrator for The Offices of William H. Reading, MD, Teresa is instrumental in its clinical and administrative operations. Teresa and Dr. Reading have four sons and have been involved with the Fort Bend community for over twenty years. 

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