L
ife throws a lot of curve balls our way, and there are few events least expected than becoming the full-time caregiver of a partner or a parent. It’s not really a role we think about much as we’re growing up, or falling in love with someone. Blame it on our humanity. It’s much easier to stay focused on the positive, instead of preparing for a future we’d rather not imagine.

Although you didn’t plan for it, you may have found yourself caring for a loved one who is no longer able to care for themselves in a full way. This is one of the most noble roles we can take on, and it transforms us (and our compassion) in innumerable ways. Being the full -time carer of someone is not an easy task, however. If we don’t also take care of ourselves, we can wind up burnt out, miserable, and broken in our own ways.

Caring for self is caring for others.

Becoming someone’s caregiver is a hard choice that is sometimes made out of necessity and always out of love. We have to care for someone deeply to take care of someone on such a real level. After all, taking care of ourselves is a full-time job on its own and one that many of us struggle with. There are few things more noble than committing to being there for someone in this way, but it’s a hard road to travel…especially when you don’t look after yourself well.

In order to be the best possible caretaker we can for our loved ones, we have to remember to love and care for ourselves. As caretakers, we are responsible for both someone else’s welfare and our own. Just because you’ve committed to putting things like a job on hold doesn’t mean you can stop taking care of your body and your spirit.

Failing to commit to a self-care routine, or failing to ask for help, can result in a serious level of burnout that’s hard to overcome. When we burnout, we become emotionally volatile and physically weak. We can’t be as present as we need to be for our loved one, because we’re not even present inside. There’s nothing wrong with taking time for yourself and recharging. It’s the only way, in fact, that you can last for the long-haul and ensure that your loved one has the care they need to lead a happy life.

Undeniable signs of caregiver burnout.

Are you beginning to lose interest in the things you once loved? Are you diving into risky behavior in order to hide unhappiness, or even just to keep your head above water? You could be experiencing caregiver burnout. If you want to keep helping the one you love, you have to confront it and find ways to work through it.

Losing interest in joy

What is your life like on a day-to-day basis? A great deal of your time will be spent looking after your loved one, but what do you do for yourself? Do you still have things that you’re passionate about? Hobbies you pursue? Losing interest in joy and the things (and people) we once loved is one of the most common and telling signs that we may be confronting caregiver burnout and a need to nurture our physical and emotional bodies.

Insomnia and sleep issues

Insomnia and sleep issues are a common sign of caregiver burnout. Think of stress and hardship as a computer program that’s frozen and just won’t close. Although you may have ordered the computer to shut down, it’s frantically trying to work through all its processes first so it can close out the program permanently. Your brain works the same. When you’re worried about something, it frantically works to resolve that thing, but it can’t. Your sleep becomes impacted as the cycles in your brain increase anxiety and activity.

Increased risky behavior

Have you noticed any new behaviors in yourself since becoming a caregiver? As the stress mounts, have you increased your spontaneous purchasing? What about gambling, drinking, or recreational drug use? There are all kinds of risky behavior we can find ourselves getting involved with as we fall into a burnout spiral. We might use these activities to numb or distract ourselves, but they rarely work long and leave us with even bigger problems to resolve.

Dramatic changes in appetite

Stress isn’t something which simply lives in the mind. It lives in the body too. As the cortisol in your system builds up, you can notice a number of physical reactions and responses. Namely, you may experience changes in appetite such as a loss of appetite or a dramatic new hunger which is hard to quell. This inability to eat (or tendency to overeat) wreaks havoc on our bodies, our relationships, and our lives.

Feelings of hopelessness

Feelings of hopelessness and anxiety are a common sign of caregiver burnout, and one which can be devastating if ignored. You’re carrying a heavy load, and there’s not always a lot of reward on the other side. As these negative feelings add up, they start to affect your mental health in ways that will do nothing to improve your ability to care for your loved one. Depression sets in and your job becomes that much more difficult. Happiness helps you thrive, no matter where you are.

Dramatic overreactions

Our moods go a long way to dictate the quality of our lives and the quality of our relationships too. When you walk around in a good mood, you experience a greater amount of positive feedback from your environment — and it feels good. Bad moods, however, elicit a slightly different effect. The constant stress of caring for someone else can lead to shifts in mood, which in turn lead to dramatic over-reactions and blowups which can push others away.

Strange shifts in personality

What is your personality like? Have you (or others) noticed a dramatic change since you shifted into a full-time care-giving role? The stress and responsibility is a heavy load to bear, and it changes not only physically but mentally and emotionally too. A once bright and cheerful personality can become something entirely different when you learn to see the world through the eyes of disability and chronic illness.

How to beat the burnout and deal with your stress.

There is no shame in becoming rundown by the pressures of your role. It’s a tough place to inhabit, and not one that everyone can manage. You need to be kind to yourself and start caring for yourself just as much as you care for the other person in your life. Self-care will transform you from the inside out, but you have to commit to it consistently.

1. Reshape your view of self-care

Take a second to think through your self-care routine. How often do you take time out for yourself? Do you leave the house on your own? Regularly have time to be quiet and present with your feelings? We all need time to rest and recharge ourselves physically and emotionally. It’s the way our bodies are wired. You have to take time out of your schedule to nurture both your physical body and your internal emotional world.

Reshape your view of self-care. It’s not selfish to take a step back and take some time for yourself. It’s not self-centered or wrong to ask someone else to take over your duties for even 15 minutes so you can walk away, quiet your mind, and quickly re-center and process.

Self-care doesn’t have to be a trip to the spa. It doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money, or even take up a lot of your time. The perfect self-care routine is one which we can do daily or weekly, in no more than 15 minutes (though you can take as much time as you wish). Write in your journal before bed. Take a bubble bath every Sunday night. All it needs to do is help you relax and re-balance your inner sense of calm and energy.

2. Set some self-care goals and routines

If you’re new to the self-care game, then you may need to take some time really thinking about what a self-care routine looks like to you. Before diving into the deep end, you need to look inward and really consider what’s going on. Where are you feeling most burnt out? Is it your energy levels in general? Are their feelings of sadness, resentment, or anxiety involved?

Look at yourself and then use that to set some self-care goals which will then help you establish a routine. If you’re simply physically tired, perhaps you’ll set yourself a goal of getting a 20–30 minute nap at lunchtime every day. If your emotions are running high, maybe you’re looking for a goal of finding someone to talk to once a week.

There’s no right or wrong way to go about setting these goals. They are all unique to you and your specific circumstances. Be honest with yourself and don’t try to start out with anything too complex or grandiose. If your self-care is running every day, don’t sign up for a marathon when you haven’t even run around the block in a decade. Look for little ways you can improve your internal happiness slowly, each day (or every week).

3. Limit what’s getting in the way

Figuring out what you need and then setting up a routine, you may find that you come up against some barriers and setbacks. Maybe your schedule isn’t as fixed as it once was, or perhaps you struggle to get up (or going to bed) the 15 minutes earlier. When it comes to setting ourselves a new habit of any kind, we should always seek to make things as easy as possible on ourselves. By getting out of our own way, we find our self-care routines thrive.

Keep a journal of your self-care time and write down any instance in when your self-care routine slips. Why didn’t you take that time before bed? Why didn’t you go on that run, or call that friend? Look at the mistake and then work backward. What factors got in the way of your self-care success?

Identify the factors and then do what you can to limit them. If you set a goal of a morning run — but you regularly fail to meet that goal — perhaps the early starting time is the barrier for you. Rather than giving yourself another hurdle (waking up earlier than your body wants to) make it easier on yourself. What other time of the day can you run? What about a walk? It’s up to you. You can find a solution or you can continue to get in your own way.

4. Take it easy on yourself

Even if you do everything right and carve out tons of time for yourself, things are going to go wrong. You’re going to fall asleep before that massage you booked. You’re going to forget to write in your journal in the morning, or forget to do a meditation before you go to sleep. Mistakes happen and life moves fast. Sometimes there’s not enough time to get to your self-care routine. That’s okay.

Don’t break down every time you mess up with your self-care routine or fall back into your old patterns. We’re human. We can’t be perfect. It’s not possible. We all make mistakes and we all get things wrong. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes, and we have to put ourselves second.

Take it easy on yourself and keep looking forward. When you’re forced to prioritize the care of your partner or loved on over your own comfort, embrace it and accept it. Then, make a note to take some extra time for yourself once they are comfortable and ready again. While there may not be enough hours in the day, we have plenty more time ahead of us in which to nurture ourselves.

5. Find a way to ask for help

How often do you ask for help when you’re feeling low or like you can’t go on? Do you open up to others? Do you let them see the tired person who lurking beneath that shield of armor? Because make no mistake — breaking down, needing help, feeling like you can’t go on — these are not signs of weakness. You’ve already proven that you are one of the strongest people alive. These are simply signs of exhaustion, and even the greatest heroes needed rest.

If you are the sole caretaker of an elderly loved one, or someone who is chronically ill and disabled, then it’s important that you build up a support system. Beyond finding people who can support you emotionally, you need to find people who can help you with your loved one (even if that help is only sitting beside them while they sleep so you can take a quick nap).

Find people you can confide in. People who don’t judge you and people who open up their hearts to the fact that you’re hurting and in need of compassion. Let down those walls and let go of all those preconceived notions about the image you need to present to others, or the face you have to show to the world. Everyone around you can see that you are human, just like they are. Let them in and let them help you and the person you love.

Putting it all together…

Although we rarely plan to become the full-time caretaker of someone that we love, it’s a situation that occurs more often than we think. Caring for someone in such a complete way is taxing, and it can take a serious toll on our mental and physical health. In order to remain the best possible support we can, we have to make sure we are supporting ourselves and finding healthy ways to resolve our stress and burnout.

Change the way you see self-care and know that there is nothing self-centered or selfish in it. You can’t be the best caretaker if you are not the best version of yourself. You need to reground and recharge. Set yourself some self-care goals and then use those goals to design a routine you can lean into easily and without resistance. Limit the hurdles you have to jump to get some time to yourself and make it as easy as possible to commit to. Take it easy on yourself and remember — there’s going to be mistakes, setbacks, and times when you just can’t get away. That’s okay. Don’t be upset. Just give yourself some extra time later down the road. Hold compassion in your heart and build a support system you can lean on. The road you travel is hard, but it will transform you if you let it.