Taking care of a loved one is one of the most stressful experiences we may ever have. There are many factors that can be involved in causing stress in a caregiver. Feelings such as anxiety, isolation, frustration, and guilt, fears for the future, and an unexpected and often unwanted change in the role that we are used to are among the many things that can cause stress. One of these alone can cause significant stress, but we all know that we can feel some or all of them at the same time or within each day. When they accumulate or occur simultaneously, the feelings can become overwhelming.

Stress may take the form of loneliness, irritability, anxiety, resentment, sadness, etc, and if not addressed these emotions can lead to severe physical symptoms that affect our health. Do these feelings affect you? I’d like to be able to say that I am not affected by stress, but I think I have experienced all of it. Stress is my daily companion. Being a caregiver for anybody is stressful at times, and having an ill spouse or parent has its own kind of built in stress because this is not how things are ‘supposed’ to be. I was not expecting to have to do ‘everything’ to keep our lives going smoothly – but I’m doing it because it needs to be done. I did not plan on watching the physical deterioration of the man I married, but I have to because I am there and he needs me. All of these issues, in addition to the time it all takes, contribute to feelings of stress in all of us.

We may understand that we are feeling stress and we may know why, but what seems more important is how we are able to or choose to cope with it. We need to maintain balance in our lives and to retain our sense of self, so we need to adopt some strategies for coping with stress that will allow that to happen. To begin with we need to recognize and admit the feelings that we have and recognize that they are part of being human. It’s important to know the difference between ‘having’ these feelings and ‘acting’ on them. For example, I may get upset when Stan doesn’t take the medication I just reminded him of, but I do not act on it by getting verbally angry with him (or pummeling on him like I want to). I can say to myself that I am ‘really angry’ and know that it’s okay to feel angry because now he will not able to be ready for us to leave on time, etc. Acting on the feeling would just increase my stress level and that is not good for either one of us.

If your feelings are very intense, it’s better to walk away and try to moderate the feelings. Often times these strong feelings really need to be expressed so call a friend or a therapist or engage in some primal screaming in another room or outside. (Your neighbors will probably even understand). Dwelling on negative feelings by yourself can really intensify and crystallize them.

I have found that regular aerobic exercise, three times a week for me, has been a tremendous help in allowing me to deal with the feelings that stress creates. I also recently started weekly yoga classes and am currently reading about meditation. I started short meditation sessions a week ago and I really seem to feel much calmer. I hope these strategies will be helpful.

We each have to find what it is that works for us as individuals, but I think it is extremely unhealthy to do nothing. There is a choice involved here, so I hope that you will choose to help yourself deal more positively with stress.

Editors Note: Susan was caregiver to her husband Stan, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1980. He passed away on August 12, 2008 at the age of 73.

About the Author
Susan Hamburger earned a Bachelors Degree from the University of Wisconsin in Elementary Education, and two Master’s Degrees, in Educational Psychology and Biostatistics / Epidemiology. She has been a kindergarten teacher, a school psychologist, and retired as Bio-statistician at the National Institute of Mental Health.Susan has served on the Board of local Parkinson’s disease support group organizations since the early 1990’s. She has served Chair of the Patient Services Committee, Vice-President and President of the Washington DC area chapters of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association and the National Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Susan has also spent many hours on Capitol Hill, lobbying our Senators and Representatives to increase the funding for Parkinson’s disease research.