Managing the Stress of Caregiving

Family Caregiving September 23, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

Providing care for a family member can be a rewarding experience. It can also be all-consuming, leaving some caregivers exhausted and depressed. A study by The Center on an Aging Society at Georgetown University found that 15 percent of family caregivers report high levels of overall stress as a result of caring for an older family member or friend with long-term care needs.

The study concluded that the stress of caregiving can have a negative effect on the health and well-being of both the caregiver and the care recipient, putting the care recipient at risk today and the caregiver at risk when he or she is older. Although most caregivers may cope well with stress, there are a number of things that would make their job easier. Access to information, education, and training on long-term care, technology, support groups, counseling, respite care, and financial assistance would benefit both the caregiver and care recipient.

Family caregivers often have little or no preparation, support, or understanding about providing long-term care, which can make it an overwhelming experience. According to the study, most primary family caregivers are women (64 percent). Approximately four out of five who report that caregiving is stressful are women, and roughly three-quarters who report feeling "very strained" physically, emotionally, or financially as a result of providing care are also women. Nearly one in five (19 percent) report that their relative or friend requires constant attention. This can take away from time spent with family or friends, and limit social and community activities, hobbies, exercise, or vacations.

On the other hand, the majority of primary caregivers do not report feeling stressed and many engage in activities to help them cope. Over one-third turn to prayer or meditation. Nearly two out of five (38 percent) report that they talk with family or friends when stressed. Almost half (48 percent) report that caregiving has made them feel good about themselves, and 47 percent say they appreciate life more as a result. Other studies have found that caregivers feel useful or proud, and many have improved relationships with the care recipient and other family members.

The Impact of Stress

In the last several decades there has been a great change in our understanding of how the mind and body work together. The word “psychosomatic” was once used to suggest that some physical illnesses were “all in your head.” Now it is understood that both the mind and body are involved. There is a complex interaction of social factors, physical and psychological stress, individual personality, and the ability to adapt to pressure.

As a caregiver one can become overwhelmed with juggling the care of an elder along with a job or other family obligations. The level of care itself can be demanding, particularly if the one being cared for is incontinent or has some memory loss.

Studies have shown that when we are stressed, a hormone is emitted that in turn excites the adrenal gland to release adrenaline and cortisone. Adrenaline stimulates the heart to beat faster and open the vessels carrying blood to the muscles, and blood pressure goes up. Pupils open wider and we breathe faster and shallower. If we remain in highly stressful situations, our bodies are in a constant state of arousal, which wears down our immune system and can lead to less resistance to various diseases.

What Can We Do to Decrease Stress?

The good news is that research has demonstrated that we can decrease the effects of stress through simple techniques. Sharon Lewis studied the effects of relaxation on the immune function in caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients. Caregivers were given relaxation therapy over a six-week period. Initially the caregivers' immune systems were found low functioning and they were experiencing depression and anxiety At the end of the six-week therapy, the caregivers showed higher functioning immune systems and a decrease in depression and anxiety.

A chemical antidote to stress is accomplished through the release of endorphins, which are produced and released naturally from the brain and cause a general sense of well-being and relaxation. There are many simple things that help to release these endorphins. One contributor to stress is feeling that we have no control over the circumstances we are facing. People who see “the glass as half full rather than half empty” have hope and a sense of control. We can teach ourselves to think more optimistically. We can also learn breathing techniques that change our physical response to stress. There is enough variety in techniques that work that most everyone can find one that suits them.

Stress Management Techniques to Try

There is a wealth of information available on how we can boost our immune systems and general sense of well-being by thinking positively and by doing deep breathing and relaxation exercises. Research has demonstrated that within two weeks of doing a relaxation process for 20 minutes each day there are dramatic positive changes in our body and mind.

Sometimes there are people around or our time is limited. In this case, just realizing that we are feeling overwhelmed and then shifting our thoughts to something positive or neutral will remind us that we can do something to help. Look outside and appreciate a tree, flowers, or birds. Stop to hug a pet. Take a walk. Watch a comedy on television. Laughing is also “good medicine.”

A well-researched technique is progressive muscle relaxation. It is slowing down breathing while relaxing muscles and mind. There are many CDs and tapes available for purchase and may also be found at your local library.

The most important part of all these techniques is knowing that you are stressed and wanting to do something about it. As you try different approaches you will make your own variations and discover many resources on Web sites and in libraries and bookstores.

Coping with Caregiving is a publication available through Oregon State Extension that may help address stress and caregiving, in addition to other issues.

For more information, visit these eXtension Learning Lessons:

For additional information, visit:

  • Bodian, S. (1999). Meditation for Dummies. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing Co.
  • Colbert, D. (2005). Stress Less. Lake Mary, FL: Strang Publishing
  • Loehr, B. & Migdow, J. (1999). Breathe In Breathe Out. Alexandria, VA: Time Life Books
  • Murray, B. & Fortinberry, A. (2004). Creating Optimism. New York: McGraw Hill
  • Sapolsky R. (1998) Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.
  • Schmall, V. & Stiehl, R. (2003). Coping with Caregiver; How to Manage Stress When Caring for Older Relatives. Oregon State University Extension
  • Center on Aging Society: www.aging-society.org
  • Center on Aging Studies without Walls: www.cas.umkc.edu/casww

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.