- Taking care of your own emotional health and physical needs makes you a more effective caregiver.
- Consider seeking assistance with caregiving responsibilities.
- Recognize signs of stress. Talk with your doctor or a counselor if you are having trouble coping with your emotions.
One of the most important—but often forgotten—tasks for caregivers is caring for themselves. A caregiver's physical, emotional, and mental health is vital to the well-being of the person who has cancer. To be a good caregiver, you must be good to yourself.
How to cope
Caregivers may experience periods of stress, anxiety, depression, and frustration. The following suggestions can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed or burned out.
Find support. Feeling angry, guilty, alone, afraid, and/or sad can be common for caregivers. Talking with other people who are caring for a family member or friend with cancer can help you cope. Ask an oncology social worker to you with any local resources, such as support groups.
Recognize the signs of stress. The following are signs of stress:
- Feeling exhausted all of the time
- Getting sick more often than usual
- Not sleeping enough
- Feeling impatient, irritated, or forgetful
- Not enjoying things you used to enjoy
- Withdrawing from people.
Get help. This can mean hiring people to care for the person with cancer. Or, hire people to help you with chores, errands, or childcare to free up some of your time. Family, friends, members of religious groups, and people in community groups are often willing to assist. Accept their help and give them specific tasks.
Make time for yourself and other relationships. Spending time doing something you enjoy can give you a much-needed break. Taking breaks can help you continue to be an effective caregiver. Also, spend time with other people who are important to you. Maintaining those supportive relationships is important for your own health and wellbeing.
Learn about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If employed, take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. This act requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees who need time off to care for a seriously ill family member. Employers must continue benefits during the leave period, and some may allow a flexible or reduced work schedule. The FMLA also permits employers to provide leave provisions that are more generous than the act requires. Talk with your employer to learn about the specific provisions your company offers.
Be kind and patient with yourself. Many caregivers experience occasional bouts of anger or frustration and then feel guilty for having these feelings. Try to find positive ways of coping with these difficult feelings, such as talking with supportive friends and exercising. Journaling is another positive outlet.
Take care of your body. Make time to exercise, eat healthy foods, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep. In addition, re-evaluate your own health. The stress of caregiving can lead some people to develop or increase unhealthy habits, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, or using prescription medicine improperly. If you cannot make healthy changes on your own, seek professional help.
When to seek professional help
It is important for caregivers to pay close attention to their emotional and mental health. Several studies have shown that caregivers are at an increased risk for depression and anxiety. If you are having trouble coping with your emotions, talk with your doctor or a counselor.
Symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness and despair that interfere with daily activities. Other warning signs include:
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Problems sleeping, such as not being able to sleep or sleeping too much
- Lack of energy
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Trouble with focus, memory, and making decisions
- Feeling irritable and restless
- Excessive crying
- Headaches or constant, unexplained pains; physical symptoms that don’t improve with treatment
- Drinking too much alcohol
Anxiety is a common and normal response to a stressful situation, such as caring for a person with cancer. However, too much anxiety can lead to health problems and interfere with daily activities.
Symptoms of anxiety include:
- Trouble solving problems, making decisions, or focusing
- Feeling excitable or restless
- Increased muscle tension or feeling tense
- Unexplained and constant anger or irritability
- Not being able to sleep
- Too much worrying
Managing depression and anxiety
In addition to seeking professional help, other ways to help manage depression and anxiety include:
- Avoiding drinking too much alcohol
- Planning enjoyable activities with family and friends
- Joining a support group for caregivers
- Doing activities that bring you happiness and comfort
- Exercising — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time can help
- Practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga