Carers are crucial to our society — yet often, they’re so busy supporting others that their own mental health can be affected. So for Carers Week 2022, we’re taking a look at some of the most common wellbeing challenges they can face.
Being a carer is complicated. It can be hugely rewarding and massively disheartening. It can build your self-esteem or eat away at it. It can bring genuine life satisfaction or leave you feeling totally empty. And for a lot of carers, it’s possible to feel all of these things in a single week.
Yet what do we mean when we say ‘carer’? It might sound like an obvious question but there are actually many different ways to carry out the role. In fact, some people are carers without even realising it. This is because they might think that a carer is mainly someone who takes care of another person’s physical or medical needs. However, if you have a partner with depression and are offering them emotional support, then you are actually a carer. The same goes for helping out a loved one with a drug or alcohol problem.
In general, a carer is someone who provides unpaid support to a friend or family member with an illness, disability, addiction or mental health condition (or who needs extra help because they are elderly). This means that a carer might do many different things for the person they are looking after, from providing personal care to managing finances to acting as an advocate.
In some cases, caring might be a role that you didn't choose, meaning it could bring up many mixed feelings. For this reason, you might need a lot of time and support to adjust to the situation. For instance, if you have had to move into a caring role for a romantic partner, then you might mourn the loss of the old relationship and the activities you used to do together, as well as the future you both had planned.
Your experience of being a carer will also depend on your relationship with the person and the circumstances that have led to you taking care of them. For instance, if you are caring for a parent who you feel let you down when caring for you in childhood — or who has been a difficult, critical or demanding presence in your life — then you might find it challenging to move into a support role with them. Being a carer can also often mean that you have to prioritise the other person's needs above your own, which can be a challenge because you still have your own needs as well. As a result, finding a balance and knowing where the boundaries are can be very difficult.
In other words, being a carer is no small thing and can bring up a range of confusing emotions. Because while supporting another person can be satisfying and joyful, it can also be challenging and demanding. And due to this, it is common for individuals in a caring role to face a variety of mental health challenges.
Although being a carer can help you to grow in maturity, compassion and confidence, it can also create a sense of stuckness, frustration and despair. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all or find that you struggle from time to time, you are not alone. According to both Carers UK and Mind, here are some challenges that people can experience:
1. Mental health issues
A Carers UK survey of over 5000 individuals found that 71% of carers have poor physical or mental health. As well as this, 84% felt more stressed as a result of their role, while 78% felt more anxious and 55% reported that they suffered from depression.
Ongoing stress, worry and anxiety can be a big challenge for carers. This can be caused by the many complexities of looking after another person, from worrying about their health to overseeing their safety to feeling concerned about the future. Additionally, the benefits system can be complicated, causing the added burden of financial strain. As a result, some carers might find it hard to ever switch off or relax.
Depression, low mood or suicidal thoughts can also be an issue, especially if you feel that you can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. Additionally, if the person you are caring for is dealing with their own sadness, anger or despair, then this could have an impact on your mood too. It can also be very hard to watch a loved one suffer.
As a result of the mental health challenges of caring, some people develop unhealthy coping strategies such as drug or alcohol use, eating issues, self-harm or compulsive behaviours. All of these can be ways of managing frustration and unhappiness.
2. Guilt and shame over negative feelings
Many carers talk about the challenging emotions that caring can bring up, such as anger and resentment towards the person they are looking after. Yet they might also worry that those feelings are somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ and that they can’t tell anyone, for fear of judgment. Instead, they might bottle it all up.
However, as caring is a huge responsibility, it’s totally normal to feel a wide range of emotions. And for all the love, joy and satisfaction you might experience, more difficult feelings are almost inevitable. These can include guilt, frustration, anger, loneliness, resentment, emptiness, fear, powerlessness and a desire to escape. And alongside these painful emotions, there might also be the belief that you shouldn’t feel this way — that you should somehow be perfectly patient and loving at all times. You may also find that you are sometimes unable to hide difficult feelings in front of your loved one, which can stir up guilt and shame. These are all very human responses to being a carer.
Some carers can also have fantasies of the person passing away so that it can all finally be over. These intrusive thoughts are not the same thing as wanting to harm your loved one and it doesn’t mean that you are bad or don’t love them. It also doesn’t mean that you genuinely want them to be gone. Instead, it is a normal feeling brought on by the intense pressure of the situation (and in some cases, the distress at seeing them suffer). It is not bad or unnatural for carers to have these thoughts, especially after being in the role long term. However, it is also important to seek support if you do.
3. Isolation and loneliness
Being a carer often means having less time to pursue your own life, including socialising, hobbies and interests. Time to yourself might be quite limited and take advance planning without much room for spontaneity. You might also find that your friends can’t really relate to your life, making you feel even more isolated. Also, if you have given up your job to be a carer then you might not see as many people on a day-to-day basis either.
As a result, you might experience deep feelings of loneliness, which can also lead to a sense that your life is somehow ‘empty’ or without meaning. Because no matter how much you might love the person you are caring for and enjoy their company, it is totally natural to need a variety of other people in your life. In fact, according to Carers UK, over a third of carers can experience loneliness.
4. Feeling that you are losing yourself
Related to the above, it is also natural to want the freedom to do your own thing and pursue your own passions, yet caring can make this more difficult. You might also not have time to prioritise your own self-care and health, for instance, through exercise, a balanced diet or a proper sleep routine. And if you have had to give up work, hobbies or socialising, then it can feel like losing a big part of yourself. In other words, carers can sometimes face an identity crisis.
For instance, when you meet new people, go on a date or catch up with friends, you might feel as if you have nothing to talk about as your life now revolves around caring. You might also start to question who you are or feel like you have no identity outside of your role. As a result, your self-esteem could suffer and you could also lose confidence in your ability to do anything other than be a carer. Overall, you might really miss your ‘old self’ and find yourself grieving for them.
5. Exhaustion and stress
For some, caring is an around-the-clock role where they are always ‘on call’. This is especially the case if you support someone who needs extra help at night, meaning that you might be missing out on your own essential rest.
Of course, this can have a big impact on your mental and physical health, as well as your ability to really be present as a carer. It can also make it difficult for you to feel patient and calm during the day, causing every challenge to feel bigger and more daunting. You might also find that you get irritable or short-tempered, or just struggle to think clearly. Exhaustion can also bring up feelings of guilt that you are not performing your role well enough or that you are a ‘failure’.
Chronic stress can also be an issue triggered by (as well as causing) exhaustion. For instance, if you have been in a caring role for quite a while, have not been getting your own needs met and are at the limit of your window of tolerance, then you might find yourself falling into a long term stress response. In other words, you could find yourself stuck in a state of Fight, Flight or Freeze. This means that you might feel irritable or angry a lot and get easily ‘triggered’ by difficult situations (Fight response). Or you might find it impossible to unwind or switch off and experience racing thoughts about all the things you have to do (Flight response). Alternatively, you might feel emotionally zoned out, disconnected and numb, as if you just want to hide away from the world (Freeze response). All of these can be signs of chronic stress.
Lack of rest might also cause you to experience what’s known as ‘carer burnout’ or ‘compassion fatigue’. This is when you are so depleted by your role that you feel physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Yet at the same time you might not want to stop caring for your loved one, causing you to also feel stuck or trapped.
As we have seen, being a carer is a huge responsibility that can have a massive impact on your life and bring up complicated feelings. This can be especially true if you didn’t choose the role or are in a pattern of being in relationships with people who need help (for instance, people with addictions).
This is why it is really important to take care of your own needs too. This might mean drawing on support from friends, family and carer support groups, so that you feel less alone. And it could also mean making time for yourself, whether that’s through rest, self-care or pursuing hobbies and interests. This can involve working hard to find balance and boundaries, which doesn’t always happen overnight.
And if you’re struggling, it can also really help to talk to someone about it all in confidence. A good therapist can help you to sort through difficult emotions, develop additional coping strategies and build up self-esteem. They can also help you to become more resilient and create healthier boundaries around your role. And if it would be tricky to attend in-person appointments, you could consider online or text therapy.
Various different types of therapy can be helpful to carers. For instance, if you would like to develop a more manageable mindset then Cognitive Analytic Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness Therapy could be good options. And if you are struggling with guilt, shame and self-blame, then Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and Compassion-Focused Therapy can help. Also, if you have had traumatic experiences related to being a carer (or have any history of trauma at all), then EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help you to work through it.
Or do you feel that you might be in a pattern of getting into relationships with people who need care or of being the ‘designated carer’ for various family members? Then Schema Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy and Cognitive Analytic Therapy can all help you to understand this part of yourself better. And if you are caring for a partner, then Couples Therapy could support you to examine the dynamics in your relationship and help both of you to get your needs met.
Caring can be a deeply meaningful experience, yet there are no quick or simple solutions to the challenges it brings. But that said, having someone to talk to can make a real difference. And by taking care of your own wellbeing through therapy, you will be better able to care for your loved one as well.
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