What You Need to Know About Caregiver Stress . . .
The one malady that affects all caregivers is stress. As caregivers, we have so much to stress about: our loved ones, our ability (or inability) to spend time with the people we care for, managing our jobs while caring, attempting to balance our families and our caregiver duties, and oh yeah, trying to hold onto ourselves in the midst of our unyielding 24-hour a day care.
As caregivers, our stressors are different than most others. But before we can learn how to reduce caregiver stress, we need to pause to think about why and how stress affects us so differently than most others.
(1) Stress is most dangerous when we believe it is permanent. When we believe our caregiving duties will never end, when we believe that we or someone we love will always suffer, stress becomes debilitating because it changes us. Not only do we withdraw into a world of our own making (see #3 below), we can no longer respond appropriately to the people around us. We hear the whispers of stress, “you can’t do this,” not the sounds of the person we are near. We feel the grip of doubt, not the touch of reassurance of the person we sleep next to. And we blind ourselves to the glare of uncertainties in our head, not the sight of what is present before us.
(2) Caregiver stress has no past. Think about it, do you still stress about something that happened a year ago? I didn’t think so. Are you still stressing about the conversation you had with your loved one last Friday? Stressing about the hospital visit that occurred months ago? Probably not. Stress has no past because it is so effective at focusing all of our attention on future uncertainties. We can even laugh at past stresses—“I can’t believe I was worried about . . . ,” but stress never, ever, has a sense of humor about the future. Stress convinces us that the future is always serious and worthy of fretting over. Caregiver stress holds our attention on the future and won’t let go of us, holding our pleasant and comforting memories of the past hostage and out of sight.
(3) Stress turns us away from others. Stress isn’t like fear. When we fear something, like watching a horror movie, we want to spend time in the company of others because we believe we will be okay simply because we aren’t alone. Stress, on the other hand, tricks us into believing that we can best “solve” stress alone, behind closed doors, in the privacy of our own thoughts. Stress is at its most dangerous when it convinces us to turn away from others by telling ourselves, “Others wouldn’t get it,” and “I’m different than others” and “I don’t want to burden others with my problems.” When this happens, stress not only changes how we think, it pushes people away from us.
(4) Stress changes shape the more attention we give it. Like anything, the more attention we give stress, the more it grows. Like a Chia Pet, stress grows with the right nutrients of isolation and mental attention. Stress becomes more vivid the more we devote our thoughts to its hallucinating facade that makes us believe we can’t (and shouldn’t) turn our eyes and thoughts away from it. Eventually, we convince ourselves, especially when we are alone (see #3 above), that the world we have mapped in our heads will unfold just as we imagine. And the more we talk with ourselves, the less able we are to prevent ourselves from mapping our lives according to the compass of what might happen rather than the compass of what is happening.
Stress is a constant for caregivers. We learn to live under the influence of stress while we care for those we love—whether in person or thousands of miles away. No one can take away the events or experiences of our lives that induce stress, but we can try to minimize our participation in exacerbating caregiver stress. Look for next week’s Unprepared Caregiver blog for specific strategies to help reduce your caregiver inspired stress.