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Caregiver Strain: What It Is and How to Navigate It

While caregiving can be incredibly rewarding for the care recipient and caregiver alike, it can also come with its challenges. Many caregivers are so used to prioritizing others that they don’t notice when their own well-being begins to slip.

The result can be caregiver strain, which may lead to caregiver burnout. This state of mental and physical exhaustion can affect the caregiver and the person they’re caring for.

Sometimes, half the battle is knowing when to ask for help. As a result, learning to spot the signs of caregiver strain can be crucial.

Let’s take a closer look at what to pay attention to and how to find support.

Key Takeaways

  • Caregiver strain is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can affect a caregiver’s mental and physical health.
  • Causes of caregiver strain primarily relate to feeling overwhelmed or unable to get help from others.
  • Seeking support, finding financial resources, and prioritizing self-care can help.

What Is Caregiver Strain?

Caregiver strain, or caregiver burden, describes the high levels of emotional and physical stress many caregivers experience over time. It develops when exhaustion from being in a caregiver role takes over. While anyone can feel overwhelmed caring for someone else, those experiencing caregiver strain may feel unlike themselves.

Think of caregiving as pouring water from a bucket. The bucket starts out full with plenty of water to spare. But over time, the bucket empties as more things need water. Eventually, there’s nothing left to pour.

This is how caregiver burnout can feel for those who experience it. As a result, it’s important to be able to spot signs of caregiver strain and address them sooner rather than later. From there, you can improve your relationship with caregiving and strike a better balance between self-care and the care of another.

Causes of Caregiver Strain

Things that cause a caregiver stress can build up and contribute to caregiver strain. Most causes are related to feeling unsupported, overwhelmed, and tired.

Those who are informal caregivers may be especially likely to experience burnout. They might feel trapped in a situation where they give a lot but don’t receive what they may need in return.

Common causes of caregiver role strain may include any of the following:

  • Lack of financial resources
  • Too many overlapping responsibilities
  • Lack of social interaction with others
  • Stress in family relationships
  • Too little time for yourself
  • Lack of control over a loved one’s condition
  • Depressive symptoms like low energy and poor mood

Signs and Symptoms of Caregiver Strain

If you feel drained, emotionally numb, and unlike yourself, you might be experiencing caregiver strain. More specific signs of caregiver strain may include:

  • Feeling tired very often
  • Feeling sad
  • Constantly feeling overwhelmed or worried
  • Losing interest in the things you used to enjoy
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Frequent headaches
  • Chronic pain
  • Anger or irritability
  • Withdrawing from other friends and family members
  • Experiencing the desire to hurt yourself or your care recipient

Tools like the caregiver strain index (CSI) can help you measure your level of caregiver strain. This brief questionnaire helps you figure out what might be causing your burnout so that you know how to move forward.

Impact of Caregiver Strain on Caregivers and Care Recipients

When left untreated, caregiver strain can quickly affect a person’s well-being. The effects of being chronically tired and stressed can take a toll on the body and even lead to health problems.

But caregiver strain might also impact care recipients.

When caregivers are stretched too thin, the quality of care they provide tends to go down. They might also be more likely to react to their care recipient’s needs with anger or frustration.

Finally, time spent alone might go up for both the caregiver and their loved one.

CaregiversCare Recipients
Lower quality of lifeRisk of chronic health conditions like high blood pressureMental health conditionsReduced quality of carePotential risk for harmFeeling burdensomeStrained relationships with loved ones

How to Navigate Caregiver Strain

While caregiver role strain may be frustrating and challenging to bear, it can be overcome. Usually, reaching out for support and finding ways to incorporate self-care into your day can help significantly.

Remember that it’s not your fault if you’re experiencing caregiver burnout. Your job as a caregiver can be non-stop, highly demanding, and selfless.

It’s not unusual to feel like you’ve left yourself behind. But there are steps you can take to make things better.

Self-Care Strategies for Caregivers

Activities that promote self-reflection and relaxation can be a great way to help lessen caregiver strain. They can help you remember that you deserve to be taken care of, just like the person you’re caring for.

Some examples of self-care activities include:

  • Building personal free time into your schedule: an hour first thing in the morning, for example
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Exercising in a form that you enjoy
  • Finding an activity or group that’s just for you, such as a hobby-focused club

Seeking Help and Support

One of the most effective ways to ease caregiver role strain is by reaching out for social support. Even if no one else is able to help you with the actual caregiving, you can ask others to pitch in by running errands or just lending an ear.

Also helpful are behavioral interventions like therapy. Speaking to a therapist might give you validation and a space to vent.

You don’t have to go through caregiver strain alone. Relying on other people isn’t a weakness. It’s a sign of someone who cares. And you deserve to feel supported.

Time Management Tips

When your time is limited, you might have to think outside the box to make the most of it.

The following tips might help you save time overall so you can spend more of it on the things you enjoy:

  • Create and stick to a consistent routine for morning, afternoon, and night
  • Consider preparing meals ahead of time and store them in the fridge or freezer
  • Make to-do lists and schedules for busy days
  • Prioritize tasks as high, medium, or low so you know what to focus on
  • Plan some time each week as “office hours” where you’ll schedule appointments, return calls, etc.

Effective Communication With Care Recipients and Healthcare Professionals

It can be easy to downplay what you’re experiencing to your care recipient and others. But doing this might probably cause more harm than good.

If possible, be open with the person you’re caring for about your needs. Letting them know you may need some more time for yourself might help you figure out how to make that a reality. It can also help limit the risk of relationship stress that might make things worse.

If not, you can also confide in healthcare professionals like your care recipient’s doctor. They may be able to give specific, helpful advice. Plus, they can likely direct you to resources that will help.

Sometimes, caregiver strain and a person’s quality of life become severe enough that institutionalization is necessary. A healthcare professional can help you consider how to best proceed.

Additional Resources for Caregivers

Beyond your loved ones and healthcare professionals, there are tools you can use to help cope with caregiver stress. These options can help with some causes of caregiver strain. They may also help you feel less alone.

Support Groups and Organizations

Talking to other caregivers of individuals of similar backgrounds can be a great way to find emotional support. When you hear the experiences of others, you might be more likely to feel understood. You may also feel more capable of overcoming your own burnout.

Resources like these can help you find other people who have been in your shoes:

  • National Family Caregiver Support Program (New York State)
  • Caregiver Action Network
  • AARP Caregiving Center
  • The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA)
  • Family Caregiver Alliance
  • Working Daughter
  • National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI)
  • In-person local support groups, faith-based or otherwise

Respite Care Options

Respite care gives primary caregivers a short break from their caregiver role. A temporary caregiver can come to your home, or your loved one can travel to a healthcare facility for a few days or weeks.

To find respite care options that fit your needs, you can use the ARCH National Respite Locator Service.

Financial Assistance Programs

Because a lack of financial support is a major cause of caregiver strain, finding options that allow you to get paid for caregiving can help.

For those in New York, CDPAP (Consumer-Directed Personal Assistance Program) is a great option for lessening the financial burden of caregiving. CDPAP allows care recipients (consumers) to choose their caregiver and help them get paid for their work. 

Friends & Family Home Care Services is a leading provider of CDPAP in New York State and can work with you to get financial compensation for yourself or your caregiver.


Caregiver strain is a real phenomenon that deserves to be taken seriously. Left unaddressed, it can cause health issues and deteriorate a person’s quality of life. By limiting stressors, learning to ask for help, and taking advantage of the right resources, you can take charge of your own health and start to feel better.

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