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Caregiver Stress During a Pandemic

Coping with compassion fatigue.

For the past year, the world has been steeped in uncertainty, stress, and loss as we all struggle to maintain balance and good health. For many of us, dealing with a sense of isolation and separation from others are new stressors. For professional caregivers and those in helping professions, providing care to others during the pandemic has resulted in exceedingly higher than normal levels of stress and presented heightened risks of burnout.

These times are particularly challenging because many of the pre-COVID-19 ways that we used to cope with stress and maintain balance are now restricted. For example, travel is no longer a viable stress reliever, and the idea of getting away from it all to rejuvenate, take a break, and recharge is no longer an option for most.

November has been designated as National Caregiver month to acknowledge the importance of this vital function lovingly performed by so many. As I reflect on my own experiences with caregiving, I think of my work as a psychotherapist with its component of professional caregiving which demands great attention and focus with days invariably ending with some level of compassion fatigue. I also think of the many people caring for elderly family members as I did recently, along with its unique joys and sorrows.

For the last two years of my dear mother’s life, she lived in my home with my wife, children, and I providing her care. I am ever thankful that she could be with all of us, rather than isolated and living alone as she had done for many years following my father’s death. She passed on a year before the pandemic began, after having had several close calls from various medical emergencies.

During those two years of intensive caregiving, everything in my life changed, many of my existing coping strategies became stretched, and the roles within my family shifted. My mother struggled to navigate a new environment in which she often felt she had little control and did not fully belong. Her moods, depression, and sadness often overwhelmed us all, no matter how hard we worked to provide her with emotional support. As a result, I gained back the 30 pounds I had worked hard for years to lose and sleep was often elusive and disturbed.

In my book on recovering from car accidents, I delve into the particular challenges that families have to meet when one or more family members have been severely injured in a car accident and require ongoing care. After an accident, injury, or during an illness, family roles can change forever. Reversals of roles are often mandated by impaired functioning or the injured/ill person’s inability to provide. This typically results in some level of depression and grief for everyone that must be addressed and resolved in order to prevent further emotional deterioration and loss of mental equilibrium. Role changes can be challenging and stressful until a new level of acceptance can be achieved.

As a caregiver, feelings of being overwhelmed, alone, trapped, or like you're "drowning" are not uncommon. Finding avenues of consistent support is essential to stay afloat. For many, finding and accessing support is not easy. Loneliness and isolation are major stressors that many experience on a daily basis. In fact, loneliness is so pervasive that in recent years, the U.K. created a separate office of the government called “The Ministry of Loneliness” to address what is acknowledged as a major public health risk. Comedians made fun of the ministry, but below the surface, most people are aware that loneliness and isolation can lead to serious mental health problems, severe depression, and even death.

Throw in a worldwide pandemic on top of existing life stressors for caregivers and us all, and a whole new psychological matrix emerges. Times like these call for unusual levels of creativity and flexibility. Emotions like anger and irritability are heightened as we struggle through crushing feelings of fear, loss, and uncertainty. However, try to keep in mind that sometimes the smallest adjustments can make a huge difference in the ability to cope.

For myself, switching my office around gave me a huge sense of relief. When the pandemic struck, my practice changed from in-person to strictly online telehealth. In order to ease the stress of bright sunlight coming into my consulting room, I covered the windows to prevent glare on my computer screen. Initially, this had the desired result but eventually, the covered windows and lack of natural light created a stressful sense of isolation.

I then realized that I could still have natural light from the windows if I simply moved my desk and couch around. It took six months of the depressing loss of natural light for a simple solution to dawn on me. Look around and see if there might be some easy fixes or alterations for managing your current situations and stressors.

Pre-pandemic, working out at the gym with my personal trainer was an excellent way for me to reduce stress. The closure of my gym due to COVID-19 was devastating. It took months for me to realize that I could continue working out with my trainer virtually. I had resisted the idea to the point of not allowing myself to even consider it until one day, virtual work-outs with my trainer felt like the appropriate and natural thing to do. Some of us adapt more quickly to change, but for many of us, making adjustments to our routines are not easy and require more time to overcome our resistance.

It’s okay to take your time to make adjustments that enhance your life, reduce your stress, and permit a greater degree of life satisfaction. Stay open to creative solutions. If something doesn’t feel quite right, look around and ask, “What I could do to improve this?” Be open to new solutions and gently feel your way into your new normal.

As a caregiver, you must remember to fill your glass first, so you can then help to fill the glasses of others. This National Caregiver month, be extra kind and gentle to yourself, know how very much your compassion and care are appreciated, and remember to provide some added care to yourself so that you can remain a strong and capable caregiver for your loved ones.


Suggested Reading

James F. Zender, Ph.D. (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident: The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

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