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Ask A Psychologist: Navigating Caregiver Burnout with Expert Tips from Dr. Rebecca Kilpatrick

December 28, 2023
Dr. Rebecca Kilpatrick, a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry, Division of Bio-Behavioral Medicine at MUSC

We recently asked what some of your questions were concerning caregiver burnout, especially around the holidays. Dr. Rebecca Kilpatrick is one of our clinical health psychologists at MUSC. Here, she defines caregiver burnout and offers a few tips on how to cope with it this time of year.

Q. What is caregiver burnout?

A: This is when you become overwhelmed by the stress of caring for another person. That could be a young child, it could be an elderly adult, it could be a spouse or a partner with a health concern, but just anywhere where you're spending a lot of time and energy caring for another person.

Q. What are the signs of caregiver stress or burnout?

A: We can think about physical symptoms like fatigue, exhaustion, sleep, changes like gaining or losing weight, or changes in appetite. Oftentimes, folks will have physical symptoms like headaches, GI upset or exacerbation of other health issues that they already had. Sometimes, it can be emotional changes like irritability, anger, being snappy or easily annoyed, sadness, feeling overwhelmed or becoming increasingly emotional. Even tearfulness or sadness that seems to come out of the blue are signs of caregiver burnout.

Q. How do I manage caregiver burnout?

A: Proactively schedule respite for yourself to manage burnout. This will look very different depending on your caregiving schedule, but it will be something like scheduling and night, a day, a weekend or a week that is off from caregiving duties. You would schedule this a month or several months ahead of time to go ahead and get substitute caregiving in place and make all the arrangements needed for you to take a break. Then, when the time comes, you're prepared and ready to walk away for a needed break.

Q. How can I get support from others?

A: Although support is one of the best ways of dealing with caregiver burnout, it can also be stressful in and of itself. One way to allow yourself to get the support you need is to make a list of your needs, whether it be grocery shopping, respite caregiving, if you need someone to come and take care of pets, or if you need someone to come and do housekeeping chores for you. Go ahead and make a list of what you need, and then when someone says, "Let me know if you need anything," you can go ahead and assign them a task that you have already prescribed ahead of time.

Q. Am I abnormal for feeling shame or having resentful thoughts?

A: Caregiving is a very isolating experience for many people. One thing that can make that worse is having thoughts or feelings of guilt or shame, maybe even resentment towards the person you're caring for, or just feeling like you want to walk away from the responsibilities altogether. These are very normal thoughts and experiences to happen. If you struggle with that, one of the things I would recommend is trying to find a support group with other caregivers, and you'll find that those thoughts and those experiences are actually quite normal. Then you can get support around how to deal with them

Q. What should I do in the moment when feeling overwhelmed?

A: What I would suggest is finding a way to remove yourself from the situation, either physically or mentally. Physically, if you can take a two- to three-minute break to walk outside of the room and just pause what you're doing and take a moment to breathe and remove yourself from the situation, that's great. If you can't physically remove yourself from the situation that's OK; you can still take a mental break. One suggestion would be to download CALM, and you can do as brief as 30 seconds or two-minute relaxation practices right from where you're sitting. Another would be to have a couple of creative outlets that you can tap into; for some people, that's coloring, listening to a song or perhaps doing some knitting or something with your hands that allows your brain to take a break from the situation even if you're physically still there.

Q. We're supposed to be happy this time of year, but as a caregiver, I'm struggling. Any advice?

A: There's a lot I could address here, but to keep it brief, just one thing I want to mention is to remind yourself you can hold multiple emotions about the holidays and about caregiving. You can be sad and grieving that the holidays don't look like you'd like them to look. You are going to have moments of joy when you see twinkling lights, when you see children opening gifts, or when you have your favorite meal. Just remind yourself it's not an exclusive emotional experience, and allowing yourself to have a wide variety of emotions is really important.

Interested in learning more?

We know that caregiver burnout can be more evident than ever during the holiday season. You can view a compilation of caregiver resources to help, or if you would like to thank an MUSC caregiver for all they have done for you or your family, feel free to show them how much of an impact they have had by sending them a message via our form.