• Sarah Hickson

When Caring Becomes a Health Hazard (part 1)

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

Does someone you love depend on you for high quality care, supporting them through challenging conditions such as a disability, chronic health issue or a mental illness?

If not, do you know someone who is? Have you perhaps listened to them offload on the emotional challenges that they experience caring for someone with high level needs, examples including the behavioural issues of their child with autism, their back pain from lifting and supporting their child who is unable to get into and out of bed due to cerebral palsy, or their feelings of emotional drain trying to keep it altogether in the family while their partner slips further and further away into the depths of mental illness?

Becoming a Carer

According to Carers Australia, in 2015 there were 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia and for 32% of those people, this was a primary role. We often overlook the enormous value that care giving provides our nation and the reality of life is that anyone of us could find ourselves in this position without prior warning. Potentially changing our life as we once knew it, caring for someone we love can lead into a long term role, riddled with physical and emotional demands that we often don’t feel emotionally equipped to deal with, and it’s not unusual for distressing thought patterns such as “I’m not cut out for this!” to weave through our minds.

Caring for someone else serves great personal fulfilment, yet often it can be overwhelming...

Carers have the lowest subjective wellbeing out of any large group measured by the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, and half of those surveyed were moderately stressed and experienced moderate to severe depression.

I’ve observed multiple times the impact a caring role can have over not only an individual but over a whole household. Examples include the reduction from a dual to single income due to the time required to provide high level care leading to overwhelming financial stress, the emotional adjustment to the realization that life is no longer moving in the direction that they were used to, the stalling of dreams and life ambitions, and in some cases – seeing their partner transition from someone who was once very capable and independent into a patient who now requires assistance with toileting, showering and getting into and out of bed. For some care givers, those disempowering thoughts of “I’m not cut out for this” can become louder and louder. Overwhelming feelings of resentment, and guilt at feeling resentful, are not unusual for a carer who feels unappreciated or under-valued by the person they are caring for.

Carer’s Burnout – A state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude – from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned.

Family members or friends providing high level care tend to absorb all the trauma, frustrations and discomfort of their loved one, while also dealing with their own emotions and uncertainty about the future. This often coincides with an all too common tendency for the care giver to neglect their own needs, compromising their health and overall wellbeing in the process.

I remember, during my time volunteering in early intervention programs for children with autism, listening to mothers wearily talk about their sleepless nights, their exhaustion and the ongoing challenges that they encountered trying to care for and foster the development of their child with autism who was so dependent on them, while also caring for their other children, partner and family home. These challenges were also often inflicted by feelings of helplessness and anxiety over their child’s future, finances and the strain placed on the dynamics of their family and relationship. It wasn’t just their emotional wellbeing that these women were struggling with though, it was also their physical health. Quite frequently they were dealing with colds, flues and respiratory problems, all signs of a weakened immune system. Not only that, hormonal disturbances, irritable bowel symptoms, sugar cravings and weight gain were all common problems that I had listened to, imbalances that were all driven by emotional strain.

Self neglect leads to burn out and chronic illness in the long term

During my time working with these mothers I learnt just how habitual it was for them to put others first ahead of themselves which is not unusual for women who are natural nurturers. However, I was becoming more and more aware that providing care to someone with high level needs is an energy demanding process, and the generation of this energy relies on ample resources such as quality nutrition, adequate rest and time for leisure, a strong support network and a positive frame of mind. Metaphorically speaking, these resources are like filling an emotional well. When the well is empty and dry, we have nothing left to dip into, and this is when we can become short-tempered, irritated and exhausted.

To go into the inner workings of the human body, from a physiological level, ongoing stress without relief causes the body to continuously operate from a “fight or flight” state, a biological process designed only for short-term use to protect us from danger. Continuously operating from this state can lead to multiple health problems over the long term including:

  • Blood sugar imbalances and insulin resistance, potentially leading to weight gain and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes

  • Weakened immunity and autoimmunity

  • Weak digestion and digestive problems such as IBS and colitis.

  • Cardiovascular problems such as plaque build-up and high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke

  • Infertility due to disturbances in sex hormones

  • Thyroid problems

  • Sleep difficulties

Hitting home the value of self care

I had chosen to volunteer back then to gain experience working with children on the autism spectrum so that I could focus my career on treating them nutritionally, my primary goal was to help cultivate each child’s full potential. Yet it was during this time, while watching the parents struggle with their own health and wellbeing, that I realized just how significant self-care was in protecting one’s own physical and emotional health, and that there was a real need for support in this area. More than just parenting, these parents played a special role in supporting and encouraging their child on their challenging life journey through disability. I became aware that the potential of these children greatly depended on their parents, and in order for them to become all that they could be, along with their love they needed their parent's energy and health. And if you, the reader, are caring for someone who is frail or with chronic illness or injury, the way you feel, your energy and your frame of mind is infectious. When one’s hope is challenged by a looming darkness, you are the one standing by their side holding a lantern of light. They need you to have the strength to shine your light bright for them. They need you to be energised and well.

"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation."

(Audre Lorde)

It’s so easy for us to associate self-care with selfishness, isn’t it? We were brought up to believe that sacrificing our own needs for someone else makes us a good person and that the needs of others are more important than our own. Many of us believe that we aren’t even worth being cared for. However, when considering the impact that chronic stress can have on the body, a belief such as this can potentially be as carcinogenic, if not more so, than cigarette smoke. With all of this in mind, I want to challenge such a limiting thought pattern by posing this question…how selfish is it to engage in practices that not only protects your own health and state of mind, but also improves the quality of the care you give to those who depend on you?"

Taking care of yourself builds resilience through challenging circumstances. Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and mentally is self preservation. In my next blog post I will discuss ways that you can support yourself nutritionally, emotionally and physically so that if you're struggling, you can once again feel empowered.

Sarah a qualified Clinical Nutritionist and Massage Therapist with a Bachelor of Health Science (Nutritional Medicine) from Endeavour College of Natural Health and a Certificate IV in Massage Therapy with the Melbourne Institute of Massage Therapy. She is a registered member of Australian Natural Therapists Association (ANTA) and the Australian Association of Massage Therapy (AAMT). Sarah is currently completing her Graduate Diploma in Counselling with the Australian College of Applied Psychology.

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