Everyone experiences occasional stress—it’s the body’s natural reaction to potentially dangerous or challenging situations and enables us to take hurdles in stride or successfully avoid them. The physical and mental effects of a stress response can even be beneficial in small doses, but humans aren’t meant to endure elevated stress levels over the long term.

Caregiving Is a High Stress Role

Family caregivers are particularly susceptible to chronic stress, which can lead to caregiver burn out and even the development of serious health problems. Without regular respite care and breaks, the emotional distress and physical strain of caregiving can become overwhelming very quickly. Family members take on this role to safeguard their aging loved ones’ well-being, but without proper support and self-care, they often jeopardize their own physical and mental health.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that individuals providing care and experiencing caregiver strain had mortality risks that were 63 percent higher than those of non-caregivers and caregivers who did not report mental or emotional strain.

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How Does Worrying Affect the Body?

According to the American Psychological Association, when you encounter perceived threats or a difficult situation, your hypothalamus (a region at the base of your brain) mounts an endocrine stress response. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands (located above your kidneys) to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) is an integral part of the body’s fight-or-flight response. It increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and triggers a release of glucose into your bloodstream for your brain and muscles to use. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, also controls blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism and increases muscle tension. The Endocrine Society’s Hormone Health Network notes that cortisol also temporarily shuts down bodily functions that are not integral to the fight-or-flight response, such as the digestive system and immune system.

10 Illnesses Caused by Stress and Anxiety

Constant caregiver stress will leave you feeling tense, nervous, restless and irritable. As you can imagine, a prolonged state of physical and emotional strain can seriously disrupt normal functioning of almost every organ system, thereby increasing your risk for new and worsening health issues.

Prolonged stress has been shown to contribute to numerous health problems, including:

  1. Weakening of the immune system, which increases vulnerability to colds and other infections
  2. Mental health disorders (anxiety, panic attacks, depression, mood swings)
  3. Cardiovascular problems (high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, high cholesterol levels, increased risk of heart attack and stroke)
  4. Metabolic disorders (metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity)
  5. Gastrointestinal issues (ulcers, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, chronic bowel disorders)
  6. Muscle tension and pain (backaches, neck pain, jaw pain, tension headaches, migraines)
  7. Sleep problems (insomnia, stress dreams, sleep deprivation)
  8. Chronic fatigue syndrome
  9. Respiratory problems (shortness of breath, rapid breathing, exacerbation of existing lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  10. Worsening of skin conditions (eczema, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, hives)

How to Cope With Caregiver Stress

Many caregivers take on this role without considering how long it will last, but the Caregiving in the U.S. 2015 research report found that the average duration of caregiving is four years. Building respite care into a senior’s care plan early on is crucial for managing stress levels and preventing caregiver burn out. Respite can be provided by other informal caregivers or can consist of adult day care services, in-home care aides, or temporary stays at a senior living community.

Read: Where to Find Respite: Resources for Caregivers

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends using relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and biofeedback therapy, engaging in mindfulness meditation, and practicing yoga, to release tension, better cope with stress and minimize the negative symptoms of caregiver strain. Making an appointment with your primary care physician and a mental health professional can be beneficial as well.

If caregiver stress becomes too overwhelming, it is important to consider relinquishing some of your duties and prioritizing your own self-care—at least temporarily. It should be noted that progressive elder care issues like dementia, incontinence and frequent falls often overburden caregivers and precipitate seniors’ permanent moves to residential long-term care. There is no shame in recognizing and accepting the need for a higher level of care.

Remember, stress is not simply a function of what you do; it is also a function of how you react to daily challenges. AgingCare.com offers additional resources for caregivers, including information on how to assess and minimize caregiver burden, tips for coping with stress, and caregiver support groups.

Sources: Caregiving as a Risk Factor for Mortality: The Caregiver Health Effects Study (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/192209); What is Adrenaline? (https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/adrenaline); What is Cortisol? (https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/cortisol); Stress Effects on the Body (https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body); Recognizing the Mind-Skin Connection (https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Recognizing_the_mind-skin_connection); Caregiving in the U.S. 2015 (https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2015/caregiving-in-the-united-states-2015-report-revised.pdf); National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health: Stress (https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/stress)