Family 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. Resulting feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, isolation and exhaustion—and then guilt for experiencing these emotions—can exact a heavy toll.
According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, “caregivers have higher levels of stress and depression and lower levels of subjective well-being, physical health, and self-efficacy than non-caregivers.” This difference in physical and mental health outcomes is especially marked for those who are caring for dementia patients.
However, it’s important to understand that depression, anxiety and other mood disorders aren’t an inevitable part of providing care. There are ways protect your mental health and stave off caregiver depression.
How to Prevent Depression in Caregivers
Challenge Your Negative ThoughtsA 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 our 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 RespiteTake a break from caregiving! No one can successfully 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 can benefit your mental and physical health.
Establish a Support SystemCaregivers often feel isolated from their friends and family because 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 ResourcesThere 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. For more ideas, check out this recommended reading list for caregivers.
Put Your Feelings Down on PaperJournaling about your daily emotions can be an excellent 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 increase your stress levels or worsen your caregiver depression symptoms? 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 ManageableThe inability to get through even simple daily tasks is often a crippling symptom of depression. Feeling unable to make care 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 BusyEveryone 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 disconnect from caregiving and 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 energy on a productive task is rewarding and makes it harder to dwell on negative emotions.
Get Professional HelpWe 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.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has published a guide to Finding a Mental Health Professional, offering valuable information on the types of help that are available and tips caregivers can use to start their search.
Consider SupplementsResearch suggests that nutritional deficiencies in B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, and certain minerals may contribute to symptoms of depression. It’s best to get the vitamins, nutrients and minerals the body needs through a balanced diet of whole foods, but sometimes supplementation is necessary. There are also other natural supplements on the market today that may be effective in treating depression. Clinical trials and studies point to St. John’s wort, 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), SAM-e and gingko biloba as 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. Talk to your doctor about testing for deficiencies that may be impacting your mental health and supplements for depression before making any changes to your diet or medication regimen.
Be Patient and Gentle with YourselfExpect 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.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or emotional distress, call 911 or the free and confidential 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Crisis services are also available through the Lifeline in Spanish (1-888-628-9454), for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing (TTY at 1-800-799-4889), and online via chat.
Sources: Differences between caregivers and noncaregivers in psychological health and physical health: A meta-analysis. (https://content.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0882-79188.8.131.52); What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? (https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral); Natural remedies for depression: Are they effective? (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/natural-remedies-for-depression/faq-20058026)