In Caregiving, Anxiety Can Be Contagious

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We all live with a certain amount of anxiety, much of which is caused by fear of the unknown. Since health issues can change without warning, caregivers, as well as the people they care for, often live with higher than normal levels of anxiety – and that anxiety can be contagious.

If a caregiver is anxious because of job stress, he or she likely takes that anxiety home in some form, and transfers some of it to the person they are caring for. This is not intentional, but even body language can transfer anxiety.

The person being cared for picks up on the anxiety of the caregiver. His or her anxiety may stem from not knowing what is causing the person caring for them to be stressed, so they blame themselves. Or they may just absorb the feeling of generalized anxiety that radiates from the caregiver.

You know where I'm going with this, right? The care receiver is then anxious and worried, but can't explain why. The caregiver isn't aware that his or her anxiety over a job issue has been passed on in a general form to their loved one. Knowing that they are leaving an anxious elder at home alone increases the anxiety of the caregiver as he or she heads out to work. And on it goes.

How do we stop the anxiety cycle?

While extreme cases of anxiety may call for the expertise of a medical professional, there are steps that caregivers can take to lower their own anxiety levels, which in turn may help lower the anxiety level of the person they are caring for. Try some of these steps to help unravel the knot of anxiety:

  • Acceptance of our situation can be powerful. Acceptance doesn't mean that you like the situation. It simply means that for this moment in time you accept that this is how things are. The concept of acceptance is something that a caregiver can practice. Some people in earlier stages of Alzheimer's can use this technique, as well. Since consciously accepting one's situation takes some cognitive ability, we can't expect this tool to work for those in later stages of dementia. However, if the caregiver is controlling his or her anxiety, the secondary effect should help the care receiver regardless of his or her cognitive function.
  • Journaling helps many people relieve anxiety. When we write down our feelings for our eyes only, we can be as honest as we know how to be. Writing down our negative feelings can take away some of the power of those feelings to produce guilt and anxiety. Try to write in your journal when you feel positive and grateful, as well. Doing so can balance you emotionally when you read your journal during an emotionally low time.
  • Forgive yourself for perceived shortcomings in your caregiving and other areas of your life. When journaling, you may uncover some issues that you can improve upon. Other problems may stump you. Remind yourself that while you may have failings, you are trying to be a good person. Likely, you are harder on yourself than you should be. You are doing your best, which won't be perfect. If there is something you feel that you can improve upon, talk to another caregiver, a professional counselor or join a Support Group to see how you go about developing better skills.
  • Take care of yourself by eating well and exercising. Study after study tells us that eating well and getting proper exercise will reduce anxiety and stress. Following through can be a challenge – that I know only too well – but do try.
  • Breathe. Have you ever noticed that when you are very, very anxious you are barely breathing? As a matter of fact, symptoms of an anxiety attack include feelings of not being able to breathe. When you feel anxious, try this exercise recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil:
    Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. This is one breath. Now repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four mindful breaths.
  • Meditation and/or prayer can be very helpful in reducing anxiety. People of faith can find great relief turning their anxiety weighted issues over to their God through prayer. Meditation can also be a form of prayer or it can be a time of quiet where a person focuses on a relaxing image. For more on the health benefits of meditation go to mayoclinic.com and type "meditation" in the search box.
  • Find something you enjoy and, as the saying goes, "just do it." This is one of my suggestions that results in the most eye rolling from caregivers. How are harried caregivers supposed to find time for a something enjoyable? I agree that it's not always possible to find the time to do everything you'd like to do, but listening to music as you drive or taking a walk around the block may give you some sense of peace. If you have a beloved hobby, don't let it evaporate from your life due to feeling overburdened. You may have to cut back for a time, but don't drop it. Indulging yourself a bit will help you feel less trapped by the needs of others.

Most of the suggestions above are for the caregiver. Here a few tips to help your care receiver feel less anxious, which in turn should cycle back to benefit you as well.

  • Try to keep the environment calm and pleasant.
  • Stick to a routine.
  • Make sure the person being cared for has plenty of one-on-one attention so that they feel safe and loved.
  • Don't argue with someone with dementia. Learn to "agree" with them or at least be non-committal, and then distract the person from what is upsetting them.
  • Treat your loved one as a whole person. No matter how many health issues a person has, they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They are a person first. A person with infirmities second.

Likely few people will want to follow all of these suggestions, so please read them in the spirit intended. See if something here works for you. Even one small adjustment could measurably affect your anxiety level and cycle back to your care receiver, as well.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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13 Comments

Hard to do all this when your pucking your guts up, running to the commode because of upset stomach. But good article.
One of the best bits of advice in this article, "Indulging yourself a bit will help you feel less trapped by the needs of others."
This is a good article for a certain level of anxiety. However I am starting to feel very depressed at this merry go round I have been in with hospitals, rehab, back to hospital, rehab on and on. I am at the point where I feel that I am grabbed by the neck and thrown against the wall on a daily basis with something...usually it is the lack of help from doctors, nursing homes not taking Mom for rehab because of the supposed cost of antibiotics, etc. Not trusting people, and the all too familiar "I cannot be in two places at once" predicament that hits daily. When in a caregiving situation it is eye opening how no one wants to help you or is accountable for doing the jobs they get paid for. This causes me to feel like I need to carry it all myself...other's failures. Anxiety from everyone bolting from helping. Am I breathing well now? No!