The Caregiver Cup Podcast

The Silent Caregiver Battle: My Experience with Chronic Stress

August 29, 2023 Cathy VandenHeuvel Episode 176
The Caregiver Cup Podcast
The Silent Caregiver Battle: My Experience with Chronic Stress
The Caregiver Cup Podcast
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Imagine a life where chronic stress and burnout constantly chip away at your focus, motivation, and memory. Sounds tough, right? Well, that was my reality. On this personal journey, I open up about my battle with chronic stress, discussing its profound impact on my life, offering real-life examples of how it crept into my daily routine, from forgotten meetings to misplaced items, and the steps I took to manage and prevent its recurrence.

What does burnout feel like? It can be anything from a negative outlook, impaired decision-making, to reduced self-awareness. But the good news is, it's manageable. I also share my personal experiences with caregiver stress, the techniques I adopted like breathing exercises and yoga, and the importance of reaching out, be it friends or caregiver groups. This episode reminds us all that our body and mind are built to withstand stress; we just need to listen to their signals. As a bonus, there's a free four-part training series at the end of the episode aimed at empowering caregivers to reduce stress.

Get my free resource:  17 SHIFTS TO TAKE CONTROL OF CAREGIVER STRESS that will take you to the best version of yourself.

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Speaker 1:

Well, hello, my friend, and welcome to another episode of the caregiver podcast. It's Kathy here. Well, today I want to talk about this diagnosis that I got about three years ago as a caregiver, because I couldn't figure out what was happening to me. Why was I being so forgetful, why couldn't I focus on things? And I thought there was something seriously wrong with myself and I was going to receive some sort of dementia or Alzheimer's diagnosis. Little did I know it was really the result of chronic stress, and so I want to share a story with you, or a moment in time with you, then share the data behind it my doctor's diagnosis and then ways to go ahead and cope with this and prevent it. So I think, if you're feeling chronic stress or lack of focus, lack of motivation, or you feel stuck, this is the episode I want you to really hone into and listen to today. Okay, let me share the moment of time that this was happening. I kept telling myself it's happening again. I was forgetting things and missing the mark on everyday life.

Speaker 1:

Last week, I missed my department meeting at work. I was working on a project and totally lost track of time, which is pretty normal sometimes, but my department meetings were always the same time at the same day, and my boss came to me and said Kathy, this is the second time that you didn't show up on time. What's going on? And I became 15 minutes late and then jumped into the meeting and was active on the meeting and then on Sunday I forgot the keys to the car and realized when I was walking down my mom to the parking garage, which was three floors down, that I got all the way down to the car and looked inside of my person in my hand and I forgot them. And my mom said to me Kath, you did it again, and so this wasn't the first time. So I had to go all the way up to her apartment, open her door, grab her keys, which were on the hook right by her door, and come back down. Another one is I sent myself a reminder on my phone and I also had a sticky note on my cupboard that it was Thursday morning that I needed to get my dog some more allergy prescriptions and I only had enough for one more day. So Friday I had to pick them up. Well, I said to myself when the alarm went off, because I waited until they were open. When the alarm went off. I said well, I'm going to finish this work and put some laundry on the clothesline outside, and I'll remember to do it at lunchtime. Well, it's Saturday morning and the prescription bottle is empty, and then another one is.

Speaker 1:

Numerous times in the week I walked downstairs from my office and I have an upstairs office. I walked downstairs and I couldn't remember why I walked downstairs. What was I doing, why was I walking downstairs? And I would look around going hmm, okay, I don't remember what I'm doing. And so I thought oh my gosh, do I have short-term memory loss? Well, I call this the burnout cycle, the burnout spiral. Like a spiral, chronic stress and burnout creates a cycle where your physical and emotional pieces become so exhausted and it impairs your cognitive function, which in turn hinders the ability to manage stress effectively. And this cycle can be difficult to break without intervention. And I didn't find out about this until the doctor's appointment. So I'm kind of giving you a sneak peek.

Speaker 1:

But in the interim I kept blaming myself and feeding my negative thoughts. I kept saying things to myself like oh, you're so stupid, I'm so stupid, what the heck am I downstairs for? What do I need? Or I would say things like you're losing at Kathy, and I would even laugh at myself inappropriately and say something so bad that I know it could hurt you. As a caregiver of an Alzheimer's patient, I kept saying, well, maybe I have Alzheimer's, I would be laughing, or dementia or whatever. And it wasn't out of laughing jokingly, I seriously was kind of thinking about it as well. But then I started to truly get alarmed because it kept happening over and over and over again and I kept saying what is wrong with me? I can't take off. During this time I have Dennis, who has, you know, his stem cell transplant coming up. I have my mom who's dealing with lungs cancel and then I kept telling myself what is wrong.

Speaker 1:

I used to be able to do all of this stuff without any issues. Heck, when I was raising my boys and being a mom and a working mom and I was working part time I was able to manage all of this. I was noticing more. I was noticing lack of focus. At least three times a day I would catch myself and not be able to focus, or I would catch myself not being able to remember simple things, like I would get in front of the computer and try to log into a program and I couldn't remember what the program's name was. Or I couldn't remember how to log in. I had a hard time with decisions and what decisions did we settle on? For example, if we made a decision at work, I couldn't remember what we settled on for the decision. I would have to double check and triple check what time was the doctor's appointment again, cause I could not remember my doctor's appointment. There was one time that I showed up from a hair appointment on the wrong day. I got the time right, but I showed up on the wrong day. It was becoming an issue for me. Or I'd catch myself not being able to stay engaged I would stare into space or I would.

Speaker 1:

My husband and I love watching Survivor. We've been Survivor fans from the very beginning. It's that show on Wednesday nights where people are on this island together and they have to survive right. And I would watch the show with Dennis and I would have to rewatch it again the next day because I couldn't remember what happened, what people were saying. I wouldn't. I would be present with him but I wouldn't be retaining anything. Or I would have to review the doctor's notes after the appointment and thank goodness nowadays that there's electronic viewing because I couldn't remember everything. I finally caved and did some research and then eventually made an appointment with my doctor because something was seriously wrong and I had to figure it out. And it was not getting worse, but it was just there all the time.

Speaker 1:

After an assessment with the doctor and really open discussion with him, he told me Cathy, you have chronic stress, you're chronically stressed out. And in his opinion and he suggested I would go in for some more professional help I had burnout fog. That's what he diagnosed me, as I've never heard of this before, I've never heard of anybody having burnout fog. But then when I think about it, I think about the nurses and doctors dealing with COVID. They must have had burnout fog, they must have. Or a teacher that teaches the whole entire year and now I'm listening to teachers that now have to pull the weight and do bus driving or playground duty because they don't have enough staff and so they're going to get that burnout fog eventually, or at least chronic stress.

Speaker 1:

So when I started realizing and thinking about it, I'm thinking, hmm, yeah, that makes a lot of sense, because caregiver stress and burnout for you and I can lead to a state where chronic stress becomes so overwhelming that it affects our focus, it affects our motivation and even our self-awareness. This state is often referred to as burnout fog, or another diagnosis is burnout tunnel vision, where we only can focus on certain things. And so there are some symptoms that I want to go ahead and talk about cognitive symptoms of burnout that may help you realize if you are at this burnout fog state or your chronic stress is becoming close to burnout fog. First of all, you have difficulty concentrating, and I had that when the initial shock and awe came with diagnoses and becoming a caregiver. But this one is difficulty concentrating because of chronic stress and burnout, and it can make it hard to focus on tasks or maintain attention, leading to reduced productivity and performance. Yes, I was having problems working and performing my tasks at work. I was having problems simple tasks like going grocery shopping it was like really really hard to do and staying focused on the task at hand, which was really weird. It's almost like I had an attention deficit from the stress. You know me, I gotta have a cup of coffee here once.

Speaker 1:

The second one is another symptom is reduced motivation. Feelings of exhaustion and depletion can lead to lack of motivation and enthusiasm for tasks that were once enjoyable for you. You don't even like to do something that you used to like to do, for example, running. I used to love to run. Well, I had no motivation to run, I had no motivation to go ahead some days and read a book, go and garden, and my motivation just fluttered away. And so if you're having that, that could be a symptom.

Speaker 1:

Another one is memory issues, which I talked about a lot. Burnout can affect short-term memory and your working memory, causing forgetfulness and difficulties in retaining information. And right there and then, when I read that, I was like I was relieved, but I was also concerned. Another symptom is you have a negative outlook. People experiencing burnout often develop a negative outlook on their work, on their caregiving role, on life in general, which can further contribute to cognitive and emotional strain. And they aren't even the person that they used to be and they're just not fun to be around sometimes because they're so burnt out. Nothing looks positive anymore.

Speaker 1:

Another symptom is impaired decision-making. Burnout can impact decision-making abilities, making it hard to make changes or evaluate situations rationally. And then, on top of it, think about it as a caregiver, we have to make hard decisions and if we're burnt out and chronically fatigued and burnt out and have a burnout fog and we're expected to make decisions. That can be frightening to me, oh my gosh. And the last symptom is decreased self-awareness.

Speaker 1:

As you mentioned, or as we mentioned earlier, chronic stress can lead to a reduced ability to recognize one's own state of burnout and if you are, we may downplay our exhaustion and deny its impacts and we don't even wanna face it. It reminds me of somebody that has an addiction. They don't want to even recognize it. Well, with burnout fog, that chronic stress shields us or stops us from seeing that we're in this state of burnout and the big piece for these is difficult concentration, reduced motivation, memory issues, negative outlook, impaired decision-making and decreased self-awareness. If not treated or changed, it can lead to burnout spiral and that chronic stress and burnout create a cycle where the physical and emotional exhaustion impairs our cognitive functions, which in turn hinders the ability to manage stress effectively. And this cycle can be difficult to break without intervention and that can be your own personal intervention or professional intervention. But when we're in this burnout cycle and spiral, it can be hard to go ahead and shift and change.

Speaker 1:

I have to admit that I was relieved to hear that I wasn't losing my mind and there was a diagnosis, there was resources, there was information to reinforce what I was experiencing, but also I felt hopeless, thinking how in the heck am I going to fix this when I have to be a caregiver and keep going as a caregiver? I want you to know that it is possible. It takes a little bit more work, but that work will pay off in the long run. So my doctor he said you have to work on this immediately, kathy. He explained that he was concerned about my health, my physical health, my emotional health. He was worried about my safety because he's seen things like people are, so they have lack of focus that they've gotten into car accidents or they've made decisions that weren't in the best interest of them. So he was concerned about my overall well-being. And so I want to talk about the key.

Speaker 1:

If you are experiencing burnout spiral, chronic stress, burnout, brain or brain fog, the key piece here is prevention or coping or both, and so I think that you want to think about how can you cope and what can you prevent, and I kind of was kind of snickering and rolling my eyes because the five things that he told me that would help me cope with my stress and help me prevent anything happening to me were the five basics that we always hear and I was laughing and rolling my eyes. But then, once I settled into it and I thought through it and got home, I really kicked it into gear and really took it seriously. But let me go through the five basics with you and then, as I go through the five basics with you, I'll kind of elaborate a little bit on it. But also, when I get to the end of the podcast episode, I want to share a free training that I'm doing that will help you from a prevention and a coping perspective. So the first one he told me is self care, and you know the word self care to a caregiver is like a swear word. It's like a swear word or a one that we roll our eyes at. But prioritizing self care activities that promote relaxation, such as exercise, meditation, hobbies and spending time with our family and friends without stress, is so very important. But how do you do that as a caregiver? How do you find that time and what is the right self care and how do you incorporate the right self care into your crazy busy schedule? And I had to figure that out and in my free training that will be coming up. I'm going to be talking about some of the some of the activities that I incorporated back into it, and you know, finding time with friends, even if it's one hour a week, or getting something that you're excited about to wake up in the morning to do, or finding calming, stress relief activities that are going to go ahead and ground you. That was an important piece for me Because when I looked at my time that I had during the day, the only times that I had was morning, in the evenings, and so how could I do that without losing sleep and feeling rested and recovered? And so I had to figure that out and take baby steps to go ahead and do that, spending time purposely and looking at that self care time as fuel, as fuel that was going to go ahead and rid myself of this burnout fog and this burnout brain that was going on.

Speaker 1:

Another one was setting healthy boundaries. He had asked me about the boundaries that I was setting and I didn't have clear boundaries between my caregiving responsibilities and my personal time. I had clear boundaries in between caring for Dennis, caring for my mom, and my work. I had all of those clear boundaries, but I was not giving myself any time for myself and setting clear boundaries inside of each of those three telling my mom that I need this amount of time and I'm this is a clear boundary for myself. Or Dennis explaining to Dennis which was easier he knew that I needed it, even work hours, and setting clear boundaries that I wasn't going to go ahead and work on my computer until midnight to catch up with the work that I was missing. That was just going to be a fact. That I had to have open discussions with my boss and it was easier to go ahead and have these clear boundary discussions because I had the data behind it, I had the experiences behind it. I had discussion with my doctor to go ahead and reinforce it, and so I had to go ahead and make a change. And the other thing that he suggested that I would have had and seek support and finding family, friends, caregiving groups, coach and talk about my feelings, because I could gain different perspectives, different ideas, we could share practices. This really, really helped. So that really helped and I started incorporating more of that and was open to that.

Speaker 1:

Another one was practicing mindfulness, and when I talk about mindfulness, it's really being mindful and aware, self-aware of managing my stress, and some of the simple things that I incorporated was breathing and taking deep breaths and breathing. When I would drive over to my mom, I would drive into the parking lot, do some deep chest breathings and hold my heart and saying you're calm, you're okay, cathy, and really working with that meditation, yoga, going ahead and incorporating walks and looking for, looking for objects I know I've talked about this in previous podcasts looking for hearts or looking for. I was looking at doorways and observing people's doorways and what they had for decorations and just being mindful of stress relief and doing that. And then the one thing that I did as well and I only did this for about three or four sessions is if my burnout continued to persist. And so I had a counselor that I worked with, a professional licensed counselor that I talked to, and during the pandemic, obviously we couldn't go into the office, and so I utilized help and I went ahead and used the ability of having email in Zoom and being able to chat and stuff with my therapist so that I could go ahead and identify practices. And I felt after about the third or fourth time I think I did four I was fine. I knew what I had to do and we developed more mindfulness practices. She helped me with setting my boundaries and really that's what I needed to focus in on. So I hope that that helps, because those are the four, five key pieces self care, setting boundaries, seeking support, practicing mindfulness and professional help.

Speaker 1:

What I want to talk about and conclude with today is your body and your mind are amazing because they send you signals, they send you alerts, they tell you what's happening with you. You just have to have the ability to listen and embrace that they're giving the information to you. I now am so grateful that I listened and now grateful that I seek the help of my primary care doctor, my support mechanisms, my professional help, because what I did is I developed systems and rituals to prevent and cope with caregiver stress that led to chronic stress, that led to burnout spiral and burnout brain and brain fog. Oh my gosh, it took time. I'll have to be honest with you I the big thing that my professional counselor said to me, or therapist said to me, is I want you to work on one thing a week and take small steps and then document how you felt. And, my gosh, I felt totally different. I started noticing that I was a little bit more alert. I felt the big thing, I felt was more in control and realized that this is necessary. And then, when I fell off the bandwagon, I could feel it as well. So that's why today I want to conclude with that I am offering a free four part training series and it's going to be starting on September 5th and running through the 8th. It's going to be four days of 15 to 30 minute videos that will come into your email box, and the program is called Empowering Caregivers for Essential Practices to Reduce Stress.

Speaker 1:

I'm going to take on, I'm going to share with you that I took on my stress with my top four practices, and these are the top four practices that I incorporated. First, over my four weeks when I had brain fog and when I had chronic stress and burnout brain, I had all of this and these four practices definitely made a difference. I call these my rituals, these are the four go-tos and so, like I said, if you want to go ahead and enroll and get these four practices that I implemented, I want you to go ahead and click on the link in the show notes and register. You'll get a thank you and then, within a day or so, I'll give you more of the details and then, starting on September 5th, you'll get that first email and it will go all the way through September 8th and it's free. If you forget about the show notes, you could also go out to kathyelvancom and that's Kathy with aC, and it's right on the top of my website page Because when you incorporate practices and coping mechanisms in place, you can be the best you can be in this crazy caregiver world that gifts you with burnout and chronic stress and brain fog and all of the other stuff.

Speaker 1:

But you can be the best you can be and live with moments of joy and love and peace and get back to being sane again. So I hope this helped for you today. I would love to hear where you're at with this chronic stress and I hope you take advantage of my free training. So, until we meet again, have a good day, my friend, and we'll talk to you again, really, really soon. Bye for now.

Coping With Chronic Stress and Burnout
Recognizing and Coping With Burnout Symptoms
Managing Caregiver Stress