I have had several calls lately from caregivers.
It is always a time of acknowledging them for taking one small step to reach out for support. I know this takes courage, as caregivers often fall into a pattern of internalizing their own needs in an effort to meet the demands that accumulate on them from their environment. It can lead to a shutting off of emotions in an effort to cope with a growing frustration that, if not recognized and named, can manifest into an increasing sense of isolation and despair.
James Sherman in his book Preventing Caregiver Burnout, describes this despair as a feeling of helplessness that puts one adrift. The caregiver is unable to concentrate and loses effectiveness as a caregiver, no longer excited about the progress or response of the care recipient to quality care. A connection becomes lost outwardly to the community and social contact becomes minimal, enhancing a sense of disconnection as well with one’s own enjoyment of life.
I was watching a movie last night, happened on by chance, called At First Sight. It is a true story of a man who had been blind since early childhood and regained his sight later in life following an operation to remove his cataracts.
His caregiving sister described her brother as someone who found it difficult to reach out and emotionally connect and she felt it was his own coping mechanism to the isolation he felt from his blindness.
It became clear as the movie progressed, that her caregiving role of him for most of her life had also led her to an inability to fully realize her own natural inclination towards creating joy in her own life.
This took me back to my own intense caregiving experience of my mom over the last year of her life and the process I found myself falling into as the demands of taking care of her kept increasing to the point of sheer exhaustion and sensory overload. I felt myself withdrawing inwardly in an effort to cope and began feeling gradually disconnected from a ‘normal’ state of interaction with others.
I came to realize, perhaps in the nick of time, that reaching out was the key to turning this around, despite the fact that it was the exact opposite of what I felt like doing at the time.
Some of the symptoms of caregiver burnout given by Sherman in his book are:
1) Disrupted sleep patterns, including insomnia or habitually oversleeping and never feeling rested even when the primary caregiver has managed to have a full night’s sleep or, sleep troubled by disturbing dreams or nightmares
2) Altered eating patterns, including not being able to eat or overeating, significant weight gain or loss
3) Increased sugar consumption or use of alcohol or drugs
4) Frequent headaches or sudden onset of back pain with an increased reliance on over-the-counter pain remedies or prescribed drugs
6) High levels of stress or anxiety
8) The inability to handle one or more problems or crises
9) Overreacting to commonplace accidents such as dropping a glass or misplacing something
10) Overreacting to criticism
11) Alienation, even from those who offer relief and help
12) Feeling trapped
13) Feeling emotional withdrawal
14) Thinking of disappearing or running away
15) Feeling hopeless most of the time
16) Loss of compassion
17) Resenting the care recipient and/or the situation
18) Playing the “if only” game: Saying over and over “if only this would happen” or “if only this hadn’t happened”.
A key to guarding against burnout is a willingness to take a close look at our lives in order to become more conscious of our thoughts and behaviors. We have to ask ourselves the question of why we are burning out and then what can we do to correct it by making the necessary changes to take care of ourselves. Having never-ending tasks that appear to lack both a beginning and an end; having more work to do than we can complete in a given amount of time; having tasks that we are physically unable to do, even though we feel we should be able to do them; being overly perfectionistic and focusing on what needs to be improved, rather than what has been accomplished; trying to play multiple roles in our lives; suppressing a buildup of unspoken feelings that can result in being chronically late, frequently forgetting things or reacting in ways that are inappropriate to the situation. All of these things may be signs that burnout has taken hold.
I believe that we have to name something to tame it. The first step in making a change is to identify what is happening and to raise your intention in correcting it for your own necessary well-being. Going within through mindfulness and stillness helps to open a space for new awareness and insight to be created and from there the energy to take action and reach out is strengthened. Go to tarabrach.com for some great guided meditations. One first step is all you need.