Running on Empty? How to Manage Caregiver Stress

Are you giving too much to others? Your time, energy and resources?

And if so, how do you know when you’re giving and doing too much for others?

Being a mother is inherently a giving of yourself, and there is only so much you can simplify or delegate as a parent.

Often, what happens in motherhood, moms organize their day around giving and caring for others, from immediate family members, volunteering in the school and community, caring for relatives and checking in on them, and working and keeping up with all of the supporting roles of motherhood. Moms work all the time.

So much so, everyone around her gets used to her doing the invisible workload at home and work. And when a mom reaches her breaking point from exhaustion or overwhelm from giving too much, her family often reacts in a perplexed way. Wondering why she is having a moment or losing her cool or not able to keep doing what she’s always done-incredible care-taking.

The reality is that family and friends are often well-intentioned but don’t notice caregivers’ signs overwhelm or ignore repeated requests for help and assistance or limit setting.

I’ve often heard from many moms the frustration they feel when they’ve worked hard to delegate or ask for help, and those requests have no follow-through or consistency with help. This creates another set-up: why bother asking if nothing changes and no one listens? I might as well do it myself; at least it gets done.

Can you relate? I know I sure can!

If you’re like moms I support, the first thing to do when you’re feeling burned out and giving too much of yourself is recognizing the signs and symptoms signaling you’re giving too much. For example, you may be giving too much when:

  • The activities you do create a reaction of anger, frustration, overwhelm and burned out. When you’re so tired, even the activities you do become overwhelming, or you’re noticing a trend of procrastinating, waiting to feel motivated to do things.
  • Feeling as if your to-do list is never-ending, and you rarely have a moment to rest, relax or do things you enjoy.
  • Trouble sleeping, eating, having issues with decision making, concentration, focusing, fatigue, physical and emotional exhaustion, and feeling emotionally sensitive and reactive.

If you can relate to all of these, then it’s time to pause and take some steps to manage your stress and improve your well-being.

Once you recognize you’re feeling overwhelmed, the next step is to set limits and boundaries on your time and energy.

One of the most important ways to manage caregiver fatigue is to advocate and protect your time and energy to the best of your ability and feasible in your home; which is all about having solid boundaries. In the mental health field, this is what we call boundaries. Boundaries are the ‘fences’ put in place for protection, safety, health, and well-being. Some examples of boundaries include:

  • Physical: how close you feel comfortable with others getting close to you, your home, office, socially distancing.
  • Emotional: what you share with others and what you talk about or let others share with you, when and where you express emotions.
  • Social: friends, family, who you feel comfortable with watching your child, coming into your home, who you socialize with
  • Resources: can be time, energy, and finances. For example, ways you share your time, give your time to others, paying attention to the amount of energy you have to give to others, and how you allocate your finances (do you give to everyone but never give back to yourself).
  • Personal: who you take care of and support and prioritizing taking care of yourself

As a caregiver, boundaries are essential. How you spend your time, energy, and share your resources. When you experience problematic symptoms and don’t feel like yourself, making a list of what you can continue doing and what you may need to put on pause and stop doing is an essential strategy to your health and well-being.

Learn to say no, decline taking on another task, and sometimes saying, I’m not able to do that right now, I’m overloaded, but thanks for thinking of me. Each time you set a boundary, you take a step toward taking care of yourself. And it does get easier each time you do so. Will the discomfort go away? Maybe, but maybe not, but one thing I’m sure you’ll feel a sense of relief not being obligated to do something you don’t want to do, which reduces resentment and fatigue.

Another skill to embrace when you’re giving to much of yourself is to lower your standards of perfection. Done is better than perfect. Be mindful to prioritize who and what you are responsible for, putting things into categories: the have-to’s, the want-to’s and the would be nice to do, but it’s an extra and adds more stress. I know this sounds super simple, but write it out and make three lists and write down all of the things in each category. When you do so, you can then decide what is top priority and what may need to be on pause for a while, perhaps not forever, but for the near future.

And this next suggestion comes as no surprise but is so needed: delegate and create consequences for when family/sweetie/children agree to help then forget or don’t follow through. And here is the key: when you delegate, be sure to do so in a family meeting (sweeties/children) are present and set expectations and delegate chores/needs/tasks in a calm yet direct way. If our family learns to pay attention and help out ONLY when we lose our emotions and go on a rant-guess what? You’re teaching and reinforcing a few things: they don’t need to routinely help, they step up and follow through when you get angry, and they become a little detached and numb to your emotions not fully connecting how their behavior impacts others, including you.

Care-taking can seem like a never ending role and responsibility and having skills and strategies in place to take care of yourself while taking care of others is essential for your health and well-being, and those you love. You won’t be able continue giving to others if you’re not replenishing and restoring what you give.

© Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2020


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