by Angela Sittler
Caregiver stress is something we hear about all the time as parents of children with special needs. Though the term is used for all caregivers, it is usually when a parent is the caregiver that we tend to deny it happening. Caregiver stress can be defined in three main ways, and if it is not remedied, then it can become burnout. We will go through the three main ways in hopes that you can recognize them in yourself and intervene before stress progresses to burnout.
What is Caregiver Stress?
Caregiver stress is defined as a condition of exhaustion, anger, rage, or guilt that results from unrelieved caring for a someone who is chronically ill or disabled. In this article I refer to caregiver as a general term, but it can mean a parent, grandparent, or other relative/person who provides primary caregiving services to a child.
There are three main types of stress, and the first is Physical Stress, which is just what it sounds like. Caregivers are constantly lifting heavy and cumbersome medical equipment, wheelchairs, other adaptive equipment, and the child. Often, they are not using proper lifting techniques to save their backs, knees, and other muscles/joints. This is not intentional on the caregiver’s part, as often there is no clean, appropriate place to change a 12-year-old’s diaper, or to cleanly cath a child. The caregiver has to resort to moving in awkward positions, thus putting additional strain on the body. There is also the physical wearing down of their bodies due to lack of sleep from tending to their child’s many needs, and the constant traveling to and from many medical appointments. These things can take as much of a toll on the body as lifting can.
The second is Emotional Stress, which can have the same physical symptoms as physical stress. Emotional stress is when the caregiver is constantly worrying over money, lack of time, illness, or other concerns. A caregiver can have constant guilt over trying to balance the needs of the child with special needs with those of any other children or a significant other. Caregivers often feel alone as support groups aren’t always at convenient times, or there is no childcare to even go. They can lose their friends as the friends don’t understand this “new” life, and even family can shy away in fear of doing something wrong, or not understanding what the caregiver needs. This all adds up to an emotional roller coaster than can negatively affect the health of the caregiver, who often feels isolated and alone.
Lastly is Mental Stress, which is a little different from emotional stress. Mental stress is the constant worrying over everything you have to do. Did you get the medications correct, forget any appointments, and did you order the correct supplies this month? It also encompasses the worry of juggling school schedules, work schedules, medical appointments, and any other activities. Caregivers often have to make sense of the huge amount of information that streams in and try to figure out what to do next. They are scared and worried about the future, especially what will happen to their children when they are gone.
Caregivers can have one, two, or all three of the above-mentioned stressors occurring at once. If they do not do something to alleviate that stress, it will develop into burnout.
How long it takes one to get to that stage depends on each individual. The symptoms of burnout may include sleep disturbances, alcohol/drug abuse, overreacting, persistent feelings of helplessness and sadness, changes in appetite, getting sick more often, and just going through the motions of life.
Hopefully in listing out the types of stress caregivers experience you can identify the stressors in your life or in the life of a fellow caregiver, and find ways to alleviate the stress. Parents of children with special needs have to be caregivers, but they don’t have to be the victims of caregiver stress.