Crisis Mode and Family Caregiver Stress

When a family member falls ill, the caregiver (whether it is the well spouse, adult child, or parent) goes into crisis mode. Here’s how to recognize it:

  • constantly suppressing or distracting oneself from negative feelings in order to cope with caregiving, or panicking and becoming non-functional, leaving the work to someone else;
  • automatically and continually putting one’s own needs aside or on hold;
  • dedicating everything one has to helping with the task at hand on a daily basis, even when the tasks are not emergencies;Finding a moment or two of peace within your world each day can bring the stress level down. Photo: Flaivoloka, Finding a moment or two of peace within your world each day can bring the stress level down. Photo: Flaivoloka,
  • not thinking or planning long term, just dealing with what is happening in the moment;
  • being constantly on guard for the next time the patient will need the caregiver;
  • spending most days hovering around the patient and focusing on his or her every need.

Noticing When Crisis Mode is Helpful

Though operating in crisis mode is helpful in many situations, living this way over the long-term puts caregivers at great risk of burnout and illness. If the goal in the household is achieving the best health possible, that should apply to everyone in the household, not just the patient.

Think about the instructions given by the flight crew to the passengers on an airplane: if you are a parent and you have children with you on the plane, and the oxygen masks come down, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before you help the children, because you cannot help them if you can’t breathe.

Accepting a New Normal

Don Piper, in his book 90 Minutes in Heaven [Revell, September, 2004] talks about the need to accept “a new normal” when dealing with long-term illness. For most who are diagnosed with chronic, life-ending illness, things are not going to “go back to normal”. Instead, some semblance of normalcy has to be established within the new framework of life with chronic illness.

Preventing Caregiver Burnout

Caregivers can protect their own health by trying to be tuned in to when there is a crisis and when there is a lull, and to be flexible, shifting from crisis mode to a “new normal” mode of operating when each mini-crisis is over.

Normal operating mode may seem like a fantasy for the overburdened family caregiver. While caregivers will not be able to do all of these things to the extent they did them before, incorporating even just one or two of them can help reduce stress and improve health and peace in the household.

  • paying attention to one’s own body and health needs, including exercising, eating right, seeing the doctor as needed, getting enough sleep;
  • paying attention to one’s emotional, social, recreational and other needs and making plans to fit  at least one or some of them in;
  • allowing the patient to accomplish as much as he can by himself, identifying tasks that other people can be enlisted to help with;
  • thinking about and planning for how life can still be satisfying;
  • putting crisis plans in place for the future;
  • taking the time to listen to and process one’s own feelings, either through journal writing, confiding in a friend or counselor, praying, meditating, or attending a caregiver support group.

Some will feel guilty taking care of their own needs while a family member is sick. While guilt feelings are common, they do not mean that you are doing something wrong by feeling better or taking care of your own needs. The Well Spouse Association offers support coping with guilt.

Attending faith-based or caregiver support groups and services, available in most counties, can improve mental and physical health, increase ability to manage stress and lower blood pressure. Attendance at caregiver groups is associated with enabling family caregivers to delay placing their loved ones in nursing homes by more than a year.

 ©Lisa C. DeLuca, all rights reserved. It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work without permission from the author. However, links are appreciated and you may reproduce up to fifty words and provide a link back to this article. For other arrangement or reprints, please contact the author with your request. This article was originally published on the web in 2008.


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