When you’re pouring all your physical and emotional energy into caring for a loved one, your own needs can quietly slip down the priority list. When this happens, you’re on track for burnout.

Sometimes referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’, carer burnout doesn’t mean you’ve stopped caring, but that you’re physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. When you hit that point, your ability to care for the person you love can be compromised. But, just as importantly, the stress can have long-term effects on your own physical and mental health, including depression and heart disease.

Signs of carer burnout

The first step to getting life back on track, is to recognise what’s really going on. Do any of these sound like you?

  • I feel constantly tired and run-down
  • I have trouble sleeping, because I can’t seem to switch off
  • My body feels tense all the time – as though I’m on red alert
  • I’m smoking/drinking/eating more than usual
  • I have a general feeling of anxiety, even when there’s nothing ‘wrong’
  • I’m irritable and snappy – overreacting to things
  • I’ve lost interest in the things I love
  • I feel like I’ve withdrawn from my own friends – I haven’t got the space or energy
  • My concentration and memory seem to have declined
  • I feel moody and sad without knowing quite why
  • I feel stuck and resentful
  • I’m experiencing nausea and/or stomach pain
  • My own health seems to be getting worse
  • I’m struggling to stay on top of all the things I need to do
  • I don’t have the capacity or will to care for myself properly
  • Even when I get help, I’m on edge
  • I feel hopeless and overwhelmed.

If you’re caring for someone and ticking a few of these boxes, the sooner you take action on your own wellbeing, the quicker things will improve.

So, how can we make caring not just survivable, but sustainable?

What’s changed or needs to change?

Have needs ramped up, or circumstances changed, or is the constant demand taking its toll over time? The best place to start is by understanding where things have gone wrong.

Learn to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’

Doing everything ourselves can become a bad habit. Handing over some responsibility, and having trust in others to step in when we need them, can be critical to our ongoing wellbeing. Think up a list of ways people can help – from making meals to housework, giving you some time out or attending appointments – and then say ‘yes’ to offers of support. Or, even better, speak up and ask for help in the first place. If there’s no-one within your network who can assist, it’s important to seek out external sources of support.

It’s also vital that you create and hold firm boundaries. You can’t meet everyone’s needs all the time, especially if – by meeting theirs – you’re neglecting your own. As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’, so make sure the giving isn’t all one-sided, and isn’t to your detriment.

Optimise your own physical and mental health

In the midst of caring, it can be too easy to neglect your own health. Keep on top of medical appointments and try to be as vigilant about your own wellbeing as you are about the person you’re caring for.

Find ways to take exercise – in whatever form – because movement is an investment in your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s also important that your body is well nourished. That means enough food, of the right kinds. If you’re bingeing on junk, you’re not fuelling your body properly. Take the time to prepare good meals, or – if you can – outsource.

And try to take time for yourself, doing something you enjoy or spending quality time with people whose company recharges you. Whatever you choose to do, make sure it’s something that leaves you feeling relaxed – not further depleted.

Lastly, if sleep is a problem, make sure you speak to your GP or psychologist. We all need our rest to be able to function.

Develop strategies for when it’s all too much

Whether there are specific triggers, or the demands of the everyday mount up, it’s important to have coping strategies ready to go. That might be a walk, a few minutes of mindful thinking, someone you can pick up the phone and vent to, or someone who can jump in and give you some respite.

Take a break

If you don’t have access to help through your family and wider network, it’s worth looking into paid supports. The thought of taking a break might feel impossible, but it’s really important you give yourself space to rest and regroup. You’ll be a better caregiver for it.

Protect yourself from carer burnout

Whatever steps you decide to take, know that looking after yourself isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. Finding balance in your own life is the best way to protect and prolong your caring role over the longer term.

Share your feelings, share your needs, and reach out for support. Speak to our team on 1300 632 639 or visit our sister brand Accelerate Health to find out how we can help.