Article Published: 10/25/2023
Whether looking after young children or assisting an aging relative, an ill partner, or someone else, caregivers have a reputation for putting others first. However, when this generosity causes a caregiver to neglect their own needs, it becomes a problem.
A caregiver is someone who provides direct care to help another person with the daily tasks of living. Paid caregivers perform this service professionally, but informal caregivers care for a relative, friend, or neighbor without recompense and often in addition to their job. Most Americans will serve as informal caregivers at some point in life, with an increased need as the population ages.
Caregiver stress is a well-documented phenomenon. Caregivers report much higher levels of stress compared to other adults and often have little time for other pursuits, according to the Office on Women’s Health within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Signs of caregiver stress resemble symptoms of—and can lead to—depression, and some people turn to unhealthy coping behaviors.
According to the Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP, more than half of caregivers of adults consider their situation to be moderately or highly stressful. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 survey also found significantly higher levels of stress among adults with children compared to adults without children, although both populations reported higher stress than in years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the strain of providing direct care, caregivers often face related financial stressors. Most caregivers also work, and many report an impact on their work as they try to balance responsibilities. Additionally, NAC and AARP survey respondents reported worse health statuses for themselves compared to previous surveys. Only 13% of caregivers reported speaking with a health care professional about how to support their own well-being.
Basic self-care is fundamental to controlling stress and maintaining good mental health. Yet, stressed and busy caregivers are likely to neglect their own self-care, setting themselves up for even more stress and creating a negative loop.
Juan Olivera has years of experience as a counselor working with youth, juveniles, and their adult caregivers. “I’ve seen the challenges from both sides,” he says. “Caregivers often have limited resources and work a lot just to make ends meet. Even trying to find a time to meet with them can be one obstacle.”
Counselors are in a position to reinforce the importance of self-care and to help clients implement activities that work for them, and work within the limited time they have available.
“It’s an education process,” says Olivera. “That often means teaching very brief techniques that can be used with the short amount of time they have. I suggest giving themselves a quick break or timeout when possible before engaging in something stressful to give them a transition period.”
For example, Olivera says, suppose a parent gets off work and immediately must go to pick up their child from school or daycare: “I would say, try 2 to 5 minutes where they park the car and listen to music, practice deep breathing, or call a friend. Anything like that can serve as a grounding activity.”
The first step is often to help a client realize the importance of self-care. With all their other responsibilities, self-care might seem trivial or optional. At the same time, it’s important that caregivers not treat self-care as yet another responsibility to stress over.
“I often frame it as if you neglect your self-care, then you are not being the most effective that you can be as a caregiver,” says Olivera. “Allow them to see that there is a benefit in providing themselves grace rather than beating themselves up or having more guilt in not being the most effective they can be one day versus another.”
Some clients may prove resistant to incorporating small self-care tasks, instead expecting bigger steps to take or a more direct solution to what they perceive as their real problems. Counselors can help a client to overcome this obstacle.
“Ultimately, I think it goes back to that psychoeducation component,” says Olivera. “I might have them think about a time when they recently were very stressed or had some emotional flare-up, and discuss what led up to that and how their mood or their mental state affected their interaction with their children, with coworkers, anybody. Have them reflect and connect those things, even if it is hard for them to think about.”
For some caregivers, especially parents of young children, demonstrating a good example may be another motivation for establishing good self-care practices.
“Their children are watching what they do for self-care, so there is a modeling component,” says Olivera. “If you don’t address emotional needs and engage in your self-care, they see you stressed. Those are things they are picking up on, even if they don’t talk about it or are too young to verbalize. It’s something that can impact them over time.”
Different self-care techniques work for different people, and discovering those may be as simple as looking back at what a person did in their free time before they became a caregiver.
“It's important to have a sense of identity apart from ‘just’ being a caregiver,” says Olivera. “What hobbies did they used to have, or what was their social life like? It's not going to be the same, but is there a way they can still access that identity at least every now and then when there’s a small window, even just once a month to catch up with a friend or engage in a hobby? Even if it has to be scheduled, that’s OK.”
Juan Olivera is a dedicated mental health professional based in Fort Worth, Texas. He holds a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Texas at Tyler. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor in the state of Texas. He was a recipient of the 2017 NBCC Minority Fellowship Program in Addiction Counseling.
Much of Olivera’s counseling experience centers around working with youth and caregivers in a community mental health setting. He has also provided counseling and case management with the juvenile population, as well as youth in a residential substance use treatment program.
Olivera currently serves as a mental health counselor at Tarrant County College, where he provides counseling to enrolled students and delivers psychoeducational workshops. He is also pursuing a PhD in counselor education and supervision at the University of Holy Cross.
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