A lot goes into caring for an older adult, whether it’s your parent, grandparent or another relative. The worry can cause additional stress and anxiety, and data from a Parade and Cleveland Clinic survey found that 36 percent of caregivers suffer from depression and anxiety, which is 114 percent more than non-caregivers.
And caregivers themselves are the first to admit this.
“Being a full-time caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s [is] packed with anxiety. This progressive disease gets worse over time, so you are constantly dealing with new changes and behaviors,” says Kris McCabe, a family caregiver, dementia advocate, TikTok caregiving influencer and full-time caregiver to her grandmother. “People with Alzheimer’s can experience frustration, confusion and their own set of anxieties—so it’s a rollercoaster one minute to the next not knowing when [my grandmother] will be triggered by something or if her emotions will get the best of her.” With all of the anticipated unknown, McCabe admits that she often finds herself in fight or flight mode.
Caring for a loved one long-distance can cause a lot of anxiety as well. “For me, it felt like my thoughts and emotions were always trapped in either the fear of the future and not knowing how much longer I’d have with my dad, or how much worse the disease would get,” says Laura Smothers-Chu, long-distance caregiver, Certified Dementia Practitioner, Certified Senior Advisor, and the CEO & Founder of Befriended Heart.
“There are also the sorrows and regrets of the past—yearning to go back to my life before my dad was diagnosed,” Smothers-Chu admits. “It was extremely difficult for me to keep my mind and feelings in the present moment. Other symptoms of my caregiver anxiety included irritability, judging myself, feeling like my thoughts were on a runaway train, having problems sleeping, developing headaches or migraines, and feeling helpless about how to support my parents from hours away.”
What Are Some Signs of Caregiver Anxiety?
Anxiety can cause anything from physical symptoms to emotional symptoms, or both. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the following symptoms can be signs of anxiety:
- Worrying that you aren’t able to control
- A faster heart rate than usual
- Trouble sleeping
- Trembling or shaking
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
- Chest pain
- Muscle tension
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble concentrating and remembering
To cope with caregiver anxiety and protect your health, it’s helpful to have a few go-to techniques and relief outlets ahead of time.
Here are seven ways to protect yourself from caregiver anxiety
1. Find a community and join support groups
Feeling like you are alone in this situation can intensify anxious thinking. However, talking with others who may be going through a similar situation gives you the relief of knowing you aren’t alone.
“Learn who you can find support from among your family, friends and different social communities you’re a part of, even on social media,” suggests Smothers-Chu.
“Joining caregiver support groups and connecting with like-minded individuals who truly understand what you’re going through has been one of the most beneficial releases for me. It’s a safe space to complain and air out all your frustrations without judgment,” agrees McCabe.
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2. Talk to a therapist
Often, talking to someone really helps. Finding a counselor or therapist to learn coping skills or even just vent to can help prevent and curtail anxiety.
“If you want to find a therapist, but have no idea where to start, try this website: Find a Therapist. It’s an easy way to locate a therapist based on your zip code and find the best fit for you based on each therapist’s areas of expertise, insurance types they accept, session costs, qualifications and treatment approaches,” advises Smothers-Chu. She also suggests meeting weekly with a therapist to really help with the anxiety and stress that comes with caregiving.
3. Try relaxation techniques
When you’re feeling anxious, your breathing often changes without you realizing it. You may even be holding your breath or taking fast, shallow breaths.
To prevent that, relax your body and breathe slow, deep breaths in through your nose, and exhale through the mouth. Purposely breathing in a slow, controlled manner will help anxiety. McCabe says taking deep breaths helps her feel better, especially when she’s constantly on the go. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and acupressure can also help manage caregiver anxiety. “Explore mindfulness and meditation to understand how to live in the present moment. Accessing this part of your brain will help you learn how to prevent your emotions and thoughts from taking the wheel of your life,” says Smothers-Chu.
4. Set aside time for yourself
Don’t forget about yourself just because you’re busy taking care of someone else. Set aside time for yourself, even if it’s a few minutes to a couple of hours. “I give myself time for me every day. Even if I can only find five minutes, I’ll take it,” says McCabe.
5. Get plenty of exercise and eat a healthy diet
As the saying goes, secure your own oxygen mask first—so make sure you’re as healthy as possible.
“Try to move or exercise at least three times a week,” Smothers-Chu says. “I did the things I loved so they didn’t feel like a chore—swimming, walking outside and yoga for relaxation.”
6. Educate yourself and set realistic goals
Being a caregiver comes with many responsibilities, such as managing medications, cooking, handling paperwork, scheduling appointments, monitoring symptoms and much more. It may feel like you need to do all these tasks immediately, but a checklist will help. Start by educating yourself about the stages of the illness or disease your loved one is going through and research what other caregivers in that situation deal with daily.
“Once you learn more about the illness or disease, you can start to offer specific ideas to help your parents plan ahead and navigate it,” Smothers-Chu says. “Examples might include finding and hiring an elder law attorney, financial advisor, doctor and home care company. All of these solutions can provide peace of mind, and hiring home care can give a much-needed break to the hands-on caregiver.”
7. Try anxiety medication
If your anxiety is getting in the way of your daily activities, medication may be helpful. There are many medications that can help improve your mood and treat your anxiety, so ask your healthcare provider or therapist about options to help with caregiver anxiety.
And remember that it’s okay to feel the emotions of frustration, anger, anxiety and stress while being a caregiver. “Anxiety comes from our fear of the unknown, and fear is okay to feel,” Smothers-Chu says. “In my work with my clients, I teach them how important it is to feel this emotion, embrace it in love and compassion and non-judgment, and then let it go.”