Staying Alive As Loving Caregivers

At a recent conference, Lisa tearfully described to me her agony as sole caregiver for her disabled husband for 33 years. Her pain hints at the burden of 34 million Americans caring for loved ones with dementia, disabilities, and other enduring illnesses. Most caregivers report significant stress, which mirrors my experience the last seven years as chief caregiver for my wife who has Alzheimer’s.

The stress of caregiving is hard to bear, leaving many of us heartbroken, overwhelmed, disoriented, and feeling inadequate. More sobering, intense stress can spiral downward into burnout, marked by utter exhaustion, social isolation, despair—even hypertension, heart attacks, and death. “Jerry, if you don’t care for yourself,” my wife’s physician warned me, “you’ll likely die before Susan.”  

Caregivers seek ways to stay alive, and self-care is the usual recommendation. But all too often, I believe, our first impulse is to control our painful feelings, which can sidetrack self-care and make a hard job harder. It’s like scratching the itch of poison ivy, which can transform an irritation into a nasty wound. Similarly, we get hooked on self-defeating habits, which can transform stress into burnout. Surprisingly, our biggest threat isn’t the constant stress, but rather the burnout we can inadvertently manufacture ourselves.

The challenge for caregivers is learning new habits aimed at making a hard job easier, not harder. Here’s three common self-defeating habits, and healthy antidotes that address situation-made stress, dodge self-made burnout, and open the door to self-care:

The first self-defeating habit is resisting painful emotions. We ache to get rid of our upsets, so we often get hooked on things like burying difficult feelings, avoiding uncomfortable situations—or just refusing to admit to ourselves our turmoil. Unfortunately, resisting painful emotions is like holding a beachball underwater; it’s possible, but doing so can totally deplete our energy and time, as well as divert our attention from self-care.

Instead, consider acceptance, which is allowing emotional pain to be just as it is in the moment, making space for upsets in private without acting out in public. It’s the difference between stepping back and being with our upsets versus just being our upsets. Mushy as it may sound, to feel it is to heal it.

The second self-defeating habit is brooding. We aim to control our feelings through thinking, and willy-nilly we often get hooked on repetitive and incessant negative thinking—like rehashing past foul-ups or freaking out over future calamities. Brooding is problem-solving run amuck in the dim back alleys of our hyperactive minds—and it can spiral downward into anxiety and depression, which can derail care giving.

Instead, consider redirecting attention to the present moment. One way is to embrace what I call ‘wholesome diversions,’ by intentionally turning to activities that fully absorb our attention and embody what we value. Writing is my favorite; kayaking is another. We can change how we feel by changing what we do.  

The third self-defeating habit is scolding ourselves. We aim to control our pain by whipping ourselves into shape, so we mollycoddle our inner critic as it harshly berates us for falling short.  Caregivers need support, not tearing-down and piling-on—especially when frazzled and most likely to make mistakes.

Instead, consider self-compassion, accepting our humanity and imperfections—and giving ourselves warmth and kindness, just as we would aid a needy friend. In tough moments, for example, I say to myself: “NO WONDER I got this wrong, given all the stuff on my plate.”  These two words, ‘no wonder,’ are my secret sauce.

These healthy antidotes to ‘scratching my itch’ can be put into daily practice by learning three ‘inner’ skills: stepping back and noticing the ‘goings on’ inside our minds; detecting our unhelpful habits; and diverting attention to antidotes. These skills can be learned through mindfulness training, which teaches us ways to pay attention that enhance our awareness and perspective.

Stress is a mighty burden for caregivers. But the good news is we can learn new ways to handle stress, avert burnout, and redirect our energy toward self-care and other fruitful outcomes. These new habits hold out hope—for Lisa, for me, and for other caregivers struggling to stay alive and sustain loving care. Even more, it’s liberating to know we can remain authors of our own lives, instead of victims of crushing circumstances, as we grapple with the death-defying journey of care giving.

Jerry Murphy is a retired professor and dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has written extensively on public policy and leadership, especially on how to survive and thrive in a stressed-filled world. He can be reached at:

© Jerome T. Murphy. For personal use only. Unauthorized use of this material without the author’s permission is prohibited.

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