Everyone experiences stress at some point in their life, but what is stress? And why does it impact well-being? And how can caregivers decrease their stress?
Stress has been defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” This can also include how the body adapts—positively or negatively—to demands. There is both good and bad stress and both are felt physically.
When it comes to caregiving, stress is a significant issue that experts recommend addressing in order to maintain good health. Research by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that 35% of family caregivers have difficulty finding time for themselves, 29% of family caregivers have difficulty managing emotional and physical stress, and 35% are challenged when trying to balance work and family responsibilities. Additionally, 53% of these family caregivers said that their health had gotten worse due to caregiving and this in turn affected their ability to provide that same care.
The American Psychological Association conducts an annual survey on causes of stress. Since 2020, the survey has changed to focus on the pandemic and its effects on mental health. In the 2019 report, health was one of the top three sources of stress in the United States, with cost being the main source of that stress. The survey also noted that while reports of stress remain fairly constant year to year, there is a difference in reporting stress based on age: “Gen Z adults reporting the highest average stress level (5.8), followed by Gen Xers (5.5), millennials (5.4), boomers (4.2) and older adults (3.0).”
Cause and Effect
There can be both physical and mental reasons for stress. Symptoms of a chronic illness can put stress on the body, but so can exercise which can have positive results. Someone might feel stress from worry over an illness or other issues, but they might also have a stress response to an overwhelmingly happy situation such as the marriage of a child or birth of a grandchild.
According to the Mayo Clinic, unchecked stress can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, as well as affect moods and behaviors and lead to anger, depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, social withdrawal and more. The American Institute of Stress provides an in-depth history of the term stress and highlights how stress affects each person differently. The National Institute of Mental Health outlines exactly how stress affects the brain when someone is confronted with a demand: “When you face a dangerous situation, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity.” Chronic stress can lower immunity and digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems may not continue to “work normally.”
Stress might manifest as tension in the head, neck and shoulders, fatigue, forgetfulness, feelings of anxiousness, nervousness, or irritability. The American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress research found that 77% of people surveyed “regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress” and 73% “regularly experience physiological symptoms caused by stress.”
The first step in controlling stress is recognizing what it is and what is causing it. It sounds cliché, but experts recommend simply taking a deep breath when you recognize symptoms of stress. Caregivers can take for themselves to reduce stress, and even include the person for whom they are providing care to get a double benefit.
Some ways to reduce stress—alone or together:
· Tai Chi
· Aerobic exercise such as jogging
· Eat a healthy diet that features vegetables and fruits rather than sugar or other stimulants
· Practice relaxation techniques such as taking a walk, making time for a craft like knitting, watch a funny movie, take a hot bath, sing, get a massage, and other activities that bring you pleasure.
· List stressors and then determine what can be changed
· Get a good night’s sleep consistently
In some instances, it may be necessary and worthwhile to consult your health care provider for additional assistance with stress management. For example, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea, or pain from the shoulder to the arm may be a heart attack and you should seek immediate medical attention.
While stress is not entirely unavoidable in life, people can choose how they react to stress as it comes up and how they care for themselves. Those who are family caregivers can benefit from reframing their relationship as that of partners in care, so it is not just them giving, but also benefitting from shared interests, activities, knowledge, and time together—or perhaps time apart, if that is needed.
Don’t ignore your stress or hope it will just go away. Be aware of the symptoms and find positive ways to de-stress your life.
Is Stress the Same for Everyone?
Stress manifests differently in each person and because of various life developments. One person may find staying home to care for a loved one a nice break from going to the office each day, whereas another might find being at home with someone who needs help to eat and get dressed much harder than their usual job.
Stress can result in a lack of sleep, a twitchy eye, an upset stomach, being irritable or some other symptom that does not enhance well-being.
Surveys have found that family caregivers tend to have more stress than those who are not providing care to a loved one, and the stress will increase in relation to the care needs. In other words, those caring for someone with higher needs—maybe 24-hour assistance—will be more stressed than those caring for someone who might need a little help, like a ride to the grocery store weekly.
If you’re a family caregiver and wondering if you’re stressed out, see if anything on this list from the United States Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women’s Health sounds familiar:
· Sleeping too much or too little
· Feeling overwhelmed
· Feeling alone or isolated
· Gaining or losing a lot of weight
· Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
· Feeling tired most of the time
· Feeling worried or sad a lot
· Becoming easily irritated or angry
· Experiencing headaches or other body aches frequently
Prolonged stress can affect the immune system, memory, and mental health so experts suggest finding ways to relieve stress. Family caregivers might ask another family member, friend or neighbor to take turns with them, or consider hiring a professional caregiver. There are support groups in person or online for caregivers providing different types of care, such as a group for caregivers for those living with Parkinson’s disease. Simply making time to do something enriching such as see a movie, walk with a friend or play tennis can provide benefits, many experts say.