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Help, everything is getting too much! - What to do when caregiving leads to total exhaustion

All of us can feel exhausted at times, but what about when we are constantly stretched beyond our limits? For example, as a caregiver who is constantly emotionally and physically challenged for over 40 hours a week? Such a situation often leads to burnout. More and more people are suffering from it. A study by the AOK Health Insurer, counted an average of 5.9 cases of incapacity to work per 1,000 members due to a burnout diagnosis in 2019. This means that the frequency of diagnoses has almost doubled in the last decade.

The connection between burnout and caregiver stress syndrome

How fitting, then, that burnout was originally a term intended to describe caregiver syndrome. The caregiver stress syndrome usually occurs in social professions, such as doctors or nurses, and describes the negative effects of excessive help on the caregiver. People in these professions are often so busy looking after others that they tend to neglect their own emotional, physical and mental health. The demands on caregivers’ bodies, minds and emotions can easily seem overwhelming, leading to fatigue, hopelessness and eventually burnout. In a 2018 survey, 30% of caregivers in Germany reported suffering from burnout. That's almost one in three caregivers. Due to the frequency of burnout diagnosis, the syndrome has virtually become a metaphor for mental suffering, the main causes of which are assumed to be in the world of work. However, burnout can also occur outside the work environment, because the stress of everyday life and the obligations associated with it can cause a high degree of fatigue and/or exhaustion. People who care for relatives in their private lives are particularly affected, because they often take care of those in need of care very intensively and far beyond a typical 40-hour working week. Many also have other jobs. But where does burnout come from and are there early detection mechanisms?

Recognising the difference between fatigue and exhaustion

Fatigue is a very natural phenomenon and a signal from the body that it needs rest and recovery. For example, you feel wonderfully tired after a long hike and then sleep like a rock. A healthy sleep-wake rhythm normally ensures that we feel fit and efficient during the day, while fatigue sets in towards evening. This natural cycle of waking and resting phases is found everywhere in nature, it determines life on earth. Exhaustion is also familiar to anyone who regularly does sport and exerts themselves from time to time. Even a night shift at a desk can be quite exhausting, being there for other people or a long car ride. It is different when exhaustion lasts longer than a few minutes or hours and does not disappear through sufficient sleep and exercise, because then it is characterised by an imbalance: The mental or physical activity is no longer in healthy proportion to the need for rest. You notice this by the fact that you lose your performance capacity after a very short time and feel totally tired and worn out. Suddenly, the slightest effort is enough to make you feel completely exhausted.

Learning to read the physical symptoms of exhaustion

Exhaustion can manifest itself on different levels. In particular, we can distinguish between physical and psychological symptoms. The physical symptoms can be: listlessness, muscle, limb and other physical pain, tension in the back and neck, headaches, sleep disturbances and concentration problems. But also dizziness, grinding of teeth at night and a hissing or whistling in the ear (tinnitus) are among the warning signs of severe exhaustion. Since prolonged fatigue can also be caused by infections, metabolic disorders, thyroid dysfunction or, in the worst case, very serious diseases such as multiple sclerosis or even cancer, you should always go to a doctor for a thorough check-up if you have a prolonged state of fatigue.

Psychological symptoms that tell us that everything is becoming too much

Mental exhaustion manifests itself differently than physical exhaustion: usually a feeling of being overwhelmed spreads and with it the thought: I can't take it anymore! Many people, especially caregivers, feel drained and unfocused, at other moments irritable and emotionally unstable - the emotional merry-go-round picks up speed. The palette ranges from sadness and listlessness to anger and aggression. Again, pay attention to the length and intensity of the state, after all, everyone has ups and downs. The first warning signs of mental and emotional exhaustion can help you to take care of yourself. Especially to avoid slipping into burnout or depression. These conditions are much more persistent and require professional treatment in some cases. But it doesn't have to come to that. If you take care of yourself and keep an eye on your early warning system, you can do a lot to prevent it. It is therefore worth paying attention.

(Individual) resilience - the antidote

People have different levels of resilience, they have different thicknesses of skin. In psychology, this is described as resilience. This is the ability to deal with stressors and to cope with setbacks. It is precisely this resilience that is not the same in all of us, and that's okay! But we can see that chronic fatigue is on the rise in society in general, which suggests that our lifestyle and the values attached to it increase our vulnerability to fatigue.

Your "fuel" - What drives you?

In our meritocratic society, we are expected to function at the same high energy level at all times, like a car constantly traveling at max speed on the highway. Constantly increasing demands make it difficult to take time out and listen to our own needs. In addition, for many people there are the drivers, learned over the course of their lives, which, as the word implies: drive us. "Hurry up!", "do it faster!", "try harder!", "be there for others!", "one hundred percent is not enough!" and "care more!", are a few examples of such drivers. Of course, we also need this form of fuel, because it provides us with energy and motivates us. Drivers are therefore important and useful. But only as long as they don't drive us to exhaustion.

Managing your own resources, for more resilience - self-help to overcome exhaustion

1. Learn to say no (to energy vampires)

Do you find it easy to say no and to distance yourself when you need to? Bravo! Then you have your energy balance very well under control. But what if the care takes up more and more of your time and attention than you can and should provide? Not so easy to hand over responsibility and say "Nope, someone else can do that", is it? But there are also energy vampires outside of care, in your private life: the friends for whom you always have to have an open ear and from whom you get little in return. The family, for whom you do so much every day without getting a real thank you, let alone an offer of relief.

You probably also know one or two energy vampires in your life - if so, write them down on a piece of paper, look at them in peace and make a plan for how you can reduce them step by step and/or even rid yourself of some of them.

2. Find your energy sources

When you are exhausted, you need new energy. But where from? To identify the resources that give you new strength and courage, you become an investigator of your inner and outer sources of strength. Ask yourself: Who is good for me? Which hobby or interest charges me with new, positive energy and is fun for me? What inspires me? Get in touch with people and talk about your stressors and energy vampires. It can be useful to talk to people outside your social circle as we often have the feeling that we are burdening our friends and family. An exchange in a discussion group, with people who have similar stressors (for example in the context of care) or professional help can do a lot of good here. Resilio group sessions are ideal for this.

Last but not least, we owe it to ourselves to be our own best friends. Meaning: remind yourself to rest and take good care of you! Whether it's a walk outside, a yoga class or a power smoothie in the morning. Be mindful of your body and your individual needs, and get outside support when you feel like it. You are worth it!

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