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Caregiving for Someone with a Mental Illness: 8 Ways to Avoid Burnout

Happy older woman and young woman hugging and kissing in armchair

Being empathetic is a gift. The ability to understand how others might feel makes us better spouses, parents, and friends. But for many people who provide care to others, empathy can occasionally feel like a weight.

In fact, watching loved ones or even strangers in distress can raise your own levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that’s associated with the fight-or-flight response. Scientists call this phenomenon “empathetic stress.”

If you’re a parent or caregiver to someone with a mental health condition, keeping up with appointments, managing medications, and providing emotional support can lead to ongoing stress—and put you at risk of caregiver burnout. Ironically, that can make your job even tougher.

Want to be the best caregiver you can be? It’s crucial to care for yourself. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and quality sleep can go a long way in protecting your physical and emotional health. Plus, try one or more of these expert strategies.

Caregiver Strategy #1: Change Your Self-Talk

The messages you give yourself every day have an impact on your emotional health, and the impact can be negative or positive. When talking to yourself, try saying your name instead of “I.”

This tactic gives you a fresh perspective and allows you to view yourself from someone else’s eyes, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This can help reduce anxiety and increase focus during times of stress.

Caregiver Strategy #2: Avoid Absolutes

As part of your self-talk shift, consider softening any all-or-nothing language.

“When you use absolute words like ‘always’ and ‘never,’ check yourself and challenge the objectivity of these statements,” says Tony Ortega, PhD, a psychologist in Brooklyn, New York. “Will it always be this way, or is it just this way now? Is something never going to happen, or is it just not happening right now?”

Absolute language is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression, according to a study in Clinical Psychological Science. That’s because it reflects a rigid way of thinking.

Try removing “always” and “never” from your vocabulary for a few days to help you embrace a more flexible way of thinking.

Caregiver Strategy #3: Skip the Sweatpants

Even if you’re caregiving at home all day, Dr. Ortega suggests dressing up a little as if you’re going to a job out of the house. This can mean putting on a nice outfit, wearing your favorite piece of jewelry, or fixing your hair or makeup.

The point isn’t to look good for other people—it’s to do something nice for yourself. “Feel good about the way you look even if you’re not going anywhere,” Dr. Ortega says.

This not only boosts your self-esteem, but it can change the way you think, according to research in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The study found wearing more formal clothing can improve abstract thinking.

Caregiver Strategy #4: Share Your World

Caregivers tend to focus mainly on their loved one, which means watching shows and movies their loved one likes, listening to music they choose, and pursuing hobbies that interest them. While that’s important, that can also lead to feeling like you’re giving up your identity as an individual, Dr. Ortega says.

“Invite the person you care for into your world,” he says. “Play some of your favorite movies. Introduce them to books you love or shows you’re watching. Make it about ‘us’ instead of just ‘them.’”

If you’re a parent, this can also be a great opportunity to share fond memories from your own childhood. Maybe you’ll discover your own child loves Little Women or Star Wars just as much as you did.

Caregiver Strategy #5: Avoid News Overload

Do you reach for your smartphone first thing in the morning and scroll through your various feeds late into the night? While it’s responsible to stay informed about what’s happening in the world, reading every single news alert can worsen anxiety.

Constant news consumption can have a negative effect on mental health and increase feelings of powerlessness, according to a study in the Journal of Media Psychology.

“Take news breaks,” says Afton Strate, a family therapist in Overland Park, Kansas. “Choose a couple of reputable news sources to follow, and think about how often you need to stay updated while avoiding too much information. Also, consider doing something immediately afterward to help you emotionally transition.”

Get up and stretch, for example. Or walk to the kitchen and pour a glass of water. Bonus: You’ll squeeze in some movement and stay hydrated.

Caregiver Strategy #6: Expand Your Interests

For many caregivers, life can become very routine and predictable. While that’s necessary on one level, trying new activities can be beneficial for staying emotionally and cognitively healthy, Strate says. Taking a leap into the unfamiliar can help you discover new ideas and fresh approaches.

Best of all, you don’t need an around-the-world ticket to do it. Take free virtual tours of hundreds of museums through Google Arts and Culture. Check out podcasts that might interest you, or borrow digital books from your local library.

Whatever you do, the goal is to choose something you enjoy. This is an opportunity to invest time in yourself.

Caregiver Strategy #7: Get the Support Your Loved One Needs

Sometimes, mental health treatments and medications don’t work as expected, or you may notice new or worse symptoms in your loved one. You don’t have to tackle this alone. The key is communication with your loved one’s clinician.

In some cases, a clinician may want to adjust the dose or switch to a different medication. If you’ve had difficulty finding the right medication, ask if pharmacogenetic testing (PGx) can help.

Genomind pharmacogenetic testing is designed to help clinicians understand how your loved one’s genes may affect their body’s tolerability of and response to medications. The test, which requires a prescription, can help a clinician make more informed medication and dosage choices based on the individual patient’s DNA.

Caregiver Strategy #8: Get the Support You Need

Even if you’re taking steps to care for yourself, it’s possible to experience caregiver burnout. Call or email your primary care doctor or mental health clinician if you notice any of these warning signs:

  • Feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or helpless
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Neglect or harsh treatment of your loved one

The good news is the sooner you can get the support you need, the sooner you can get back to confident caregiving.

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