Don’t Let Caregiving Stress Turn Into Substance Abuse
Caregiving involves a higher level of responsibility than most careers: You foster the health and well-being of someone other than yourself. It could be someone with a disability or disease like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s, a loved one with a brain injury, or an elderly family member with Alzheimer’s or dementia. As a caregiver, you know better than most that putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own can take a real toll on you, mentally, emotionally and physically. In this selfless role, it’s easy to let your own mental and physical well-being come last, or fall by the wayside altogether.
Caregiving and Substance Abuse
Being a caregiver, you’re probably all too familiar with exhaustion. Some days you’re so stressed it’s hard to remember your last decent meal or full night’s sleep. To take the edge off a particularly challenging day, you might turn to the bottle or take one extra pain reliever than directed. To stay awake after sleepless nights, you might find yourself trying a stimulant like Adderall or Concerta. As pressure builds, maybe you down two or three more glasses of wine, or take an anxiety-reducing sedative like Xanax.
But while it’s necessary to seek a form of release given the intensity of caregiving, drugs and alcohol won’t give you the true solace you’re seeking. They may offer you temporary relaxation but at a dangerously high cost. Virtually any substance you try, whether it’s just once or three days in a row, has the potential to be addictive. And if you’re dependent on a substance to get through the day, you aren’t just gambling with your own health, but jeopardizing the safety of the person you’re caring for, too.
Caregiving Stressors That Can Lead to Substance Abuse
As a caregiver, each of these factors may be a taxing reality and weigh on you, body and soul:
- Loneliness: Whether the individual you’re caring for has mental, physical or social needs, you might find that much of your schedule revolves completely around them. Your free time and outside relationships might suffer as a result, and it can be difficult to not feel isolated or lonely.
- Anxiety: If you have to provide around-the-clock care for individuals with intellectual or physical disabilities or diseases, anxiety is hard to avoid. Keeping up with their daily meals, personal hygiene, medications and more is a stressful endeavor, and your fear of forgetting can lead to crippling anxiety.
- Exhaustion: Providing hands-on support for people needing in-home and assisted living care is physically draining. Doing laundry, housework and other chores in addition to meeting someone’s personal needs is enough to make any caregiver exhausted on a daily basis.
- Depression: Alongside physical support, you may also provide mental and emotional guidance for seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s especially difficult to watch someone you love go through this painful, yet common, experience, especially if the person is terminally ill. Feeling that your efforts are not appreciated can also wear on you, and depression can develop as a result of the mental weight of caregiving.
These side effects of caregiving can hurt in very real ways. Adding in drugs and alcohol will only make them worse. However unbearable they may be, each of these stressors can be handled in healthy ways without the harmful consequences of substance abuse.
Healthier Ways to Manage Stress in Caregiving
Taking steps to effectively prevent and ease stress means taking care of yourself, so you can better care for others. Healthier alternatives than turning to substances include:
- Seeking out caregiver resources in your area. You don’t have to go it alone with the stress of caregiving. The U.S. Administration on Aging can connect you to a network of support for caregivers like you. You can search for nearby resources by zip code, city or topic. Forms of support include adult day care, respite services and more.
- Making time for doctor visits. Annual checkups are important for everyone, but much more so for caregivers given the strain of the job. Let your primary care doctor know that you are a caregiver. Be sure to talk with them about your diet and sleep habits, and any symptoms of mental illness you may be experiencing. If you’re struggling with overwhelming amounts of stress, they will know how best to treat you, be it with a prescription medication or a holistic remedy.
- Asking for help from family and friends. You are likely surrounded by friends and family members who can attest to how hard you work, day in and day out. Let your support network be there for you when you need it. You can lean on a parent for advice, ask a sibling or friend to get groceries for you on a busy day or have another loved one help you around the house on the weekend.
- Practicing daily gratitude. While it may seem small or insignificant, studies show being thankful has major benefits for your well-being. Thinking of something you’re grateful for, even for less than a minute, decreases stress hormones (cortisol) and anxiety, and can improve your immune system health. To practice gratitude on a daily basis, start a gratitude journal, count your blessings, write a thank you note, or verbally express gratitude for help you received.
Whether you’ve been a caregiver for six months or six years, you know firsthand exactly how stressful — and rewarding — this labor of love can be. But no matter how taxing the job gets, drugs and alcohol aren’t worth using, especially for caregivers. They offer only temporary relief and can end up having consequences that last much longer than any hangover. If you find yourself addicted to drugs or alcohol, call The Recovery Village for free to talk privately with an addiction specialist and evaluate local options for rehabilitative care. You deserve to find mental and physical wellness — for your health and safety, and that of the person you’re caring for.