A caregiver is anyone who provides help to another person in need, such as a disabled person, an ill person or an aging relative. This can be a loved one or a hired professional. Taking care of a loved one with an illness, disability or aging can stir up some complicated emotions. You may have some great days when you feel a deep sense of fulfillment and connection, and some hard days filled with guilt, grief or anger. Sometimes you might even have conflicting feelings like love and resentment, at the same time. These can be challenging for the caregiver, and if one doesn’t pay attention, it may wear you down.
Anger is an emotion that is particularly challenging for caregivers. It is normal and expected that at some point in the caregiver relationship it will appear. Often when your role is not acknowledged or the person you are caring for is agitated or aggressive the stress of this role feels quite overwhelming. If you are already caring for an aging person or disabled, you already know that anger is part of the journey.
The physical aspect of caregiving is demanding and sometimes downright disgusting. Caring for someone who can no longer take care of him/herself can be tough and may come with emotional stress leading to anger. It may, therefore, help to know that anger is a normal and predictable response to situations over which we have little or no control.
Moreover, no two caregiving experiences are the same. What triggers one caregiver may not be an issue for another. Each caregiver has their relationship with their loved one, rich and complex with a shared unique history. As a caregiver, the number of situations over which you have no control is practically limitless due to the inability to control the behavior of other people. So there are no feelings you “should” or “shouldn’t” have since emotions just arise whether you want them or not. So the question is not whether you will get angry-you will. The question then is, how will you choose to manage it?
What causes anger in caregivers?
Caregivers get mad for reasons both direct and indirect. Direct causes of anger include the likes of an uncooperative loved one, one too many mishaps in a day or an unfair criticism. Indirect causes of caregiver anger include frustration over lack of control, pent-up disappointment and lack of sleep. Irrationality and stubbornness on the part of an aged adult or disabled person can create a perfect storm of impatience and anger in a family caregiver. A senior person’s personality and ability to reason may be altered by a medical condition such as stroke or even the side effects of medication thus forming a basis for anger in the part of the caregiver.
Signs of caregiver anger
How often have you “lost it” while providing care for the aging or disabled and ended up lashing out? Or felt like you were on your last nerve and can’t take it anymore? Anger is a normal part of being around a person who needs help on an ongoing basis and who might be difficult or not accepting of help. It is not always possible to be in perfect control of your emotions thus sometimes anger “just comes out”. It comes when you find yourself snapping at your loved ones more frequently. You find yourself saying hurtful things like “why are you walking so slowly?” or deliberately hurting your loved one by inducing guilt in them like “I have to sacrifice my time and career just to take care of you”.
Some of the tell-tell signs of a caregiver’s anger are:
- Overreacting to commonplace accidents
- Overreacting to criticism
- Clenching your jaws or grinding your teeth
- Shaking or trembling
- Increased and rapid heart rate
- Sweating, especially on your palms
- Loss of compassion
- Mistreating or neglecting the care recipient
- Not being able to laugh or feel joy
Risks associated with caretaker anger
Caregivers who allow anger to build up inside them unexpressed stand a high chance of falling into depression or anxiety. On the other hand, anger that explodes outward can jeopardize relationships and even harm others. Hostility and chronic anger have been linked to heart attack, high blood pressure, heart disease, and headaches.
Strategies for dealing with caregiver anger
The emotional and physical demands that are involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person. But, there are things you can do and need to know as you find yourself experiencing these feelings;
- Take a moment to consider why you are angry. Carefully consider why the person you are caring for is doing things to make you angry. Many are times their behavior has nothing to do with you. Perhaps their medication or medical condition creates poor impulse control or memory and they can not help but ask you the same thing over and over again. They may be having a reaction to a medication or maybe they do not recognize you and are afraid you are a stranger and thus are reacting out of confusion or fear. Understanding the reasons for their behavior can soften your reaction towards them and hence caregivers can be able to control their anger.
- Do not spend time getting upset about things you have no control over. You can not necessarily control the action of the person you are caring for so there is no need to spend extra time and energy, which you do not have, in trying to do so. You might have had a big fight yesterday but the person you care for has no memory of it today. Try and leave your anger behind and instead focus on what you can control, which is your reaction and attitude, and start afresh today.
- Take a moment or time-out. Taking a moment at various points of the day to see what and how you are feeling is very important. Ask yourself if you are angry and evaluate your state of mind. If you are angry, acknowledge your anger and permit yourself some downtime to breathe, refresh and recharge. This helps prevent the buildup of anger that can result in an explosion of emotions. Being in touch with your state of mind enables you to do something to make yourself feel better and perhaps avoid an outburst before it happens.
- Do not keep anger to yourself. Reaching out to talk to someone rather than keeping it all bottled up, helps to release tension and ultimately calm the anger down. Getting someone to just listen and sympathize helps validate your feelings thus making the caregiver feel better. Many caregivers find that the more they share their anger with others, the more it helps remove some burden of suffering alone.
- Be kind to yourself. Focus more on the countless times when you were patient and compassionate and forgive yourself for moments when you became frustrated and angry. Allow yourself to have moments of imperfection.
- Recognize that you are important even when it does not feel that way. Think about how significant your role is and how important your presence is to the person.
- Incorporate some fun into your role as a caregiver. Choose something that you would like to do together such as watching a movie or listening to music. These have a soothing effect on all parties concerned and bring some relief from conflicts.
- Identify healthy ways to release or vent your anger. There are several ways a caregiver can apply to vent their anger. From writing down their anger in a journal to sharing the anger with other caregivers who can empathize, to punching a pillow. Physical exercise also helps release tension and can lift your mood. All these will help you calm down so you can move forward without the anger taking a toll on you.
- Lead with empathy. Putting ourselves in the shoes of those angering us can help us better understand their motives and behaviors and take some of the anger away. It helps to paint a clear picture and understanding why the person being cared for is behaving the way they are behaving.
- Turn anger into productive assertiveness. Anger is not always bad. Sometimes anger can be an important signal that the caregiving plan or methods are unjust. And if found to be so, then it should be a cue to spur caregivers’ to think through on how to express their concerns firmly yet calmly for those being cared for to take in what they are being told.
- Get something to eat. The highest probability for a meltdown mostly occurs in the afternoon. This is partly due to a drop in blood sugar levels occurring when a person has not eaten for a few hours. The low blood glucose level impairs one’s coping ability, therefore, the caregiver can help by eating a healthy snack together with the person being cared for.
- Try being flexible. If trying to get the person you are caring for to do something becomes a battle, just stop and focus on something else and come back to it later. Always give them limited choices when appropriate so that both of you feel like you have some control. This helps reduce frustration and anger.
- Physical exercise. Physical exercise releases endorphins that help relieve stress and anxiety associated with anger. Going for a run or hitting the aerobics gym allows the caregiver to sweat and in the process a great way to release tension and anger that may have built up inside them.
- Frame your mindset. It would be wise for the caregiver to separate the person being cared for from the condition that the people being cared for are in. The illness, and not the care recipient, is the reason for the difficulties and challenges that both of them are facing.
- Seek professional help. Asking for professional help is not a sign of weakness. Most caregivers find relief in taking therapy sessions. Also, support groups are a good source of coping with anger and by helping others with their anger, you can as well help put your own in perspective.
- Forgive yourself. No one is perfect so go easy on yourself. The caregivers’ journey is overwhelming and emotions run high thus they are especially vulnerable to the emotional side effects of caring for others. While it is never healthy to let our emotions run wild, unchecked and uncensored, give yourself a break and learn to forgive yourself for being human. Let go of the guilt and hit the restart button because everything is a growth opportunity and you will get better at anger management if you are kind to yourself.
Getting mad does not mean you are a bad person. It just means you are dealing with a difficult situation. The first thing to recognize is that anger is a normal reaction that is as a result of fatigue evolving from daily physical and emotional exhaustion. After all, you are human and nobody can always balance all aspects of their life, work, other life commitments, family in a seamless way. Do the best you can today, and take comfort in knowing that if you don’t do it exactly right, you still have an opportunity to do it over and do it better tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that. So maybe you could take a few deep breaths, and decide to cut yourself a little slack.
The biggest mistake caregivers make is not taking time out to take care of themselves and cool down. Self-care and awareness are the ultimate weapons in managing anger. Continuously stuffing emotions can lead to feelings of resentment and depression. A caregiver needs to identify a person they can candidly talk to about their challenges in the execution of their duties. The most important thing is not to keep your anger bottled up inside but to instead seek out those who can help channel your caregiver anger in a way that helps maintain your emotional and physical health. Not only will this ultimately relieve you of your anger but also open an important channel for ongoing help and support on anger management.