If you are heavily involved in the caregiving of a family member or friend, no one needs to tell you how challenging and stressful that role can be.
But did you know that the chronic stress of intense caregiving can negatively affect your overall mental and physical wellbeing? Research reveals that being a stressed-out caregiver can be hazardous to your health.
Caregiver Stress and Illness
Stress is a natural part of life, and your body is equipped to handle short bursts of physical and emotional challenges—and then return to a sense of balance. But ongoing stress can wreak havoc on your body and mind. That’s especially true for long-term caregivers.
“Prolonged caregiving—that is, caregiving that goes beyond a short-term illness—can increase stress and the levels of [the hormone] cortisol that negatively impact caregiver health,” says Kathleen Kelly, executive director of the Family Caregiver Alliance National Center on Caregiving.
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2011 annual Stress in America study, “…those who serve as caregivers—providing care to both the aging and chronically ill—for their family members report higher levels of stress, poorer health and a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors to alleviate that stress than the population at large.”
Those behaviors include smoking, eating poorly, getting little sleep, failing to exercise and missing physical checkups.
The APA study also reports that caregivers are more likely (82 percent) to have a chronic illness than are non-caregivers (61 percent)—namely, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, excess weight or obesity and depression.
The Challenges of Caregiving
Given the mental and physical energy caregiving demands, it’s no wonder that caregiving puts your health at risk. Caregiving can involve a combination of many tasks, including dealing with financial matters, coordinating medical care, setting appointments, shopping, providing transportation and helping with basic daily personal care (bathing, toileting, dressing). The amount of stress you experience as a caregiver depends on your own finances, employment situation and family and community support.
If you have other major life stressors, such as social isolation, a demanding job or boss, are struggling financially, raising children, caring for someone with advanced dementia or have a disability of your own, chances are, you’re experiencing a high degree of ongoing stress already and are at risk for developing a chronic illness of your own.
Gail Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, adds another factor: the issue of choice. “If you ask a caregiver, ‘Did you have a choice in becoming a caregiver?’” she says, “the people who say ‘I did not have a choice’ are more likely to be stressed and burdened by caregiving.”
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