Caregivers often prioritize their care recipients’ needs over their own. The sacrifices involved in caregiving place an incredible amount of strain on even the most capable individuals. The resulting feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, isolation and exhaustion—and then guilt for experiencing these emotions—can exact a heavy toll.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a family caregiver’s risk for experiencing depression is 30 times greater than that of a non-caregiver, especially for those who are caring for dementia patients. It’s crucial not to accept depression, anxiety and other mood disorders as a normal, unavoidable part of providing care. Fortunately, there are ways protect your mental health and stave off depression while caring for a loved one.
- Challenge Your Negative Thoughts
A type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) posits that our own distorted thoughts are what cause unhealthy feelings and behaviors, not external factors like people, situations and events. The premise is that we have the ability to change the way we think, feel and act, even if the situation does not change. With practice, more realistic, positive thinking can replace the negativity that contributes to depression and anxiety.
Challenging negative notions helps restructure your thought patterns so you can interpret your environment and yourself in a clearer, less biased way. For example, if you catch yourself thinking “I’m worthless,” CBT helps train you to examine this statement, determine whether it is accurate and formulate a more realistic assessment, such as “I’m not worthless; I provide quality care for my loved ones and I am a good person.”
- Find Respite
Take a break from caregiving! No one can commit to a task 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Seek out regular help from family, friends, an adult day care program, an in-home care company or even a senior living facility so that you have time to live your own life.
While your loved one is being cared for, use your free time to make yourself a priority and recharge. Participate in activities that you enjoy, such as going to a movie or ballgame, gardening, exercising, attending church, or going to a social event. Even low-key activities like reading a book, taking a long bath or getting a solid night’s sleep have important rejuvenating qualities.
- Establish a Support System
Caregivers often feel isolated from their friends and family as they have limited free time and energy for socializing. Prioritizing time with the people who care about you is important. Don’t bottle up your feelings and keep them to yourself. The ability to confide in a trusted friend or family member is an important asset to have.
If friends and family aren’t exactly supportive or can’t relate to what you’re going through, look for counseling groups or meetings. Support groups for people who suffer from depression are common in most communities, as are groups geared towards family caregivers. Knowing you are not alone in your struggles and being able to converse with people who truly understand your situation can work wonders to eliminate feelings of isolation.
- Look into Self-Help Resources
There are numerous books on the topic of depression that provide techniques for dealing with the sadness, hopelessness, resentment, anxiety and loneliness that caregivers often experience. Visit the self-help section of your local library or bookstore or search online for titles related to depression. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David D. Burns and Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes by Therese J. Borchard are two that come highly recommended.
- Put Your Feelings Down on Paper
Starting a diary and writing about your daily emotions can be a valuable release. Not only can you vent freely in a safe space, but you can also look for patterns in your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Do certain events, people or situations worsen your caregiver stress or symptoms of depression? Doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results each time is bound to cause frustration and unhappiness. The next time you encounter a particular person or situation that triggers you, try to be aware of your feelings and behaviors. If you’re reacting in a way that has been unsuccessful and/or unhealthy in the past, then make a mindful effort to change your approach and the overall outcome. Be sure to celebrate improvements in your mood and the personal progress that you make in your diary as well.
- Make Tasks More Manageable
The inability to get through even simple daily tasks can be a crippling symptom of depression. Feeling unable to make decisions or complete chores can be immobilizing and detrimental to both a caregiver and their care recipient. To overcome low energy levels, lack of motivation and indecision, take a step back from your responsibilities. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by all that you feel you must do, set realistic goals for yourself. Break larger tasks into small steps, prioritize the most urgent responsibilities and just do your best. Even if you only accomplish one or two things in a day, you should still consider it a success. If you need help seeing to some of your duties for a while, seek out back up until you’re feeling better. This will allow you to focus on your mental health while knowing your loved one is well cared for.
- Stay Busy
Everyone experiences depression a little differently, and some people fare better when they have a personal project to focus on. Caregiving obviously takes a great deal of effort, commitment and time, so you may have to set aside resources for another undertaking that you actually enjoy. The fastest way to get out of your own head is to get involved in a new endeavor, like compiling a family photo album, knitting a blanket, volunteering, getting in shape or taking an online course. Focusing your mind and your energy on a productive task is rewarding and makes it harder to focus on negative emotions.
- Get Professional Help
We all feel blue from time to time, but clinical depression is a serious mental health concern that requires the help of a professional to diagnose and treat. There is no shame in seeking expert advice on how to handle a mood disorder. Talk to your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing to find a treatment plan that is right for you. This might include antidepressant medications, counseling or both.
- Consider Supplements
Studies show that several natural supplements on the market today have been very effective in treating depression. Clinical trials and studies have shown that St. John’s wort, 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), SAM-e, and gingko biloba are promising options for alleviating some of the symptoms of depression. While dietary and herbal supplements can be beneficial for some people, keep in mind that they can interact with other over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, vitamins and minerals. Before making any changes to your medication regimen, be sure to discuss them with your doctor or pharmacist.
- Be Patient and Gentle with Yourself
Expect your mood to improve gradually, not immediately. Depression is a serious condition and feeling better takes time. People rarely snap out of a depressive episode, but patiently taking steps to be kind to yourself during difficult times can help you feel a little better day by day. Just remember that you’re not alone and there are mental health resources and elder care resources available to assist you.