BURN out. We hear this expression quite often. It happens to everyone who has been overdoing it for many years. And caregiving is no exception. How do you know you’re suffering from burn out? The first thing you feel is exhaustion.
That expression “dead tired” comes to mind. Even though you’ve slept eight to 12 hours that night, you still wake up tired. You feel dread. You don’t want to face the world, yet you do what you normally do despite feeling so drained - both emotionally and physically.
As a caregiver, you’re integral to other people’s needs. Caregivers often do what the care receiver no longer can, which can be anything from running the house and errands for them, right up to speaking up for them. You tend to put the needs of the care receiver before your own.
Yet, because you’re exhausted (and the fact that caregiving can be a thankless job), you feel useless especially when things take an unexpected turn for the worse. This feeling of incompetence can also arise when members of the family take you for granted and demand more from you when they could actually help lighten the burden.
You end up becoming cynical and less kind. You lose interest in people and things around you. You end up not particularly caring what you say or whether it’s hurting others.
Funnily enough, while you may feel like you don’t care much for other people and their feelings, you can feel very sensitive about what others say to you or about you. Everything gets under your skin and you end up over-reacting and getting angry at the slightest things.
If you’re not careful and don’t speak up or get help, burn out can make you vulnerable and lead to depression. Depression isn’t something to be taken lightly because if not addressed, it can lead to something more serious.
Burn out, exhaustion and depression make you unhappy. When this happens, your entire being and even immune system gets affected. You’d get sick more often, and if you were at a job you hated, absenteeism would be more frequent.
If you were a caregiver to a loved one – parents, spouse, child, sibling or someone dear to you – you’d find that you’re trapped into a situation that’s not of your doing. You may end up resenting the situation and hating the person you’re caring for.
When this happens, you’ll find your mind wandering. You might fantasise about running away from it all, and that you could do it without caring for the consequences. You’d find it difficult to concentrate too. This can be dangerous because as a caregiver you have to be on the ball. Miss a medication, appointment or treatment and there could be serious effects that you’d regret for life.
You may feel overwhelmed, but you could also feel as though you’ve lost your sense of purpose. On the brink of giving up, you’d change your mind when you look at how much you’re needed and your sense of responsibility and obligation set in.
As your mind gets filled with all sorts of thoughts and emotions, you’d find sleep to be quite elusive no matter how tired you are. You may find time to physically tire yourself out with a workout of sorts like walking or going to the gym. But you’ll find yourself restless in bed as your mind becomes busy with all sorts of “noise”; trivial thoughts that you’ve managed to push away during the day would come to the fore. This is one of the common features of insomniacs and people who are burnt out.
Don’t take the lack of sleep lightly. You can never make up a sleep deficit. It doesn’t mean that you can make up the sleep you lost the night before by napping in the afternoon the next day. Sleep deficit doesn’t work like that. As you age, you’d find that you’d need more days of rest to make up for a really late night, the night before, or even after going without sleep for a night.
Prolonged lack of sleep has been known to contribute to higher chances of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke, to name some. You’d be surprised your stomach and bowel movement can be affected too. You may have more frequent incidents of gastric problems and irritable bowels.
All this will get you into one big vicious cycle. When you don’t get enough sleep, you’d go through the day feeling like there’s a buzz in your head and you can’t think clearly. Headache is part and parcel of this.
The more severe reactions to burn out for some people is reaching for comfort in using food, alcohol, smoking or drugs as a crutch to make themselves feel better. If you can recognise the situation you’re in and if you feel as though you’re spiraling into something beyond your control, seek help.
Putri Juneita Johari volunteers for the Special Children Society of Ampang. She can be reached at [email protected].