Over time, the demands of caring for a friend or relative can wear on a person’s physical and mental health. This is known as caregiver burnout or caregiver fatigue.

“Burnout” is a term describing a state of emotional exhaustion where a person no longer has the energy to take care of themselves. It tends to occur when people take on too many mentally and physically demanding tasks.

Typical symptoms of caregiver burnout include anxiety, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating.

If someone thinks they are experiencing symptoms of caregiver burnout, they should contact a doctor or seek help. Support groups, such as the Caregiver Action Network (CAN) and Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), are good options for caregivers who want to connect with people facing similar challenges.

Read more to learn about what causes caregiver burnout, its symptoms, and how to manage it.

A young woman helping an older man walk with crutches.Share on Pinterest
Westend61/Getty Images

Caregiving is a demanding, often 24-7 role. It leaves people with little time to relax or care for their own needs.

Having no time off from caring can increase the risk of emotional and physical exhaustion, or in other words, burnout. According to a 2020 report that the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and the American Association of Retired Persons commissioned, 21.3% of people in the United States are caregivers.

These results show just how many people may be affected by caregiver burnout, emphasizing the need for a greater understanding of why it happens.

Some causes of caregiver burnout include:

  • Emotional demands: A caregiver can feel emotionally drained, especially if they are aware that the person they are looking after will not get better despite their efforts. For example, this could happen if a person is caring for someone in palliative care.
  • Conflicting demands: These are the additional demands a person has outside of their caregiving role, such as looking after children, going to a job, and making time for their partner.
  • Ambiguous roles: Often, the role of a caregiver is all-consuming. It is easy for a person to lose sight of who they are outside of their caregiving responsibilities.
  • Workload: Some caregivers may be looking after someone with complex needs. In these instances, it is important a person seeks temporary relief and gets assistance from other carers.
  • Conflicting advice: In some cases, treatment procedures may change as research progresses. While these changes aim to give people the best care, they can cause a significant amount of disruption and stress if a caregiver has an established routine.
  • Privacy: Additional clinical support, such as nurses and other healthcare professionals, may visit a caregiver’s home throughout the week. While this can be helpful, it can also take away their privacy.

All of these factors can contribute to a caregiver feeling overwhelmed, self-critical, and drained. If they do not address these feelings, they may start experiencing serious symptoms of caregiver burnout.

Caregiver burnout can manifest in several ways, and some people may notice they are experiencing some symptoms more strongly than others.

Symptoms of caregiver burnout include:

  • disrupted sleep
  • persistent irritability
  • altered eating patterns
  • anxiety
  • increased alcohol consumption
  • high stress levels
  • lack of joy
  • loneliness
  • loss of hope
  • suicidal thoughts

Additionally, symptoms can indicate what stage of caregiver burnout a person is in.

The three stages of caregiver burnout are:

  1. Frustration: A person starts feeling frustrated and disappointed that the person in their care is not getting better. They cannot accept that the person’s condition will decline regardless of how well they look after them.
  2. Isolation: After a while, a person may begin to feel lonely in their caregiving role. They may also grow tired of hearing negative opinions from family members, especially if these family members do not appreciate or recognize the time and effort caring requires. At this point, the caregiver may withdraw from friends and family.
  3. Despair: Eventually, a person may feel helpless and isolated. They can find it hard to concentrate, struggle to find joy in hobbies or interests, and avoid social interactions. The level of care they provide may also begin to drop as they spend less time on their own well-being.

Although compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout have similarities, they are distinctly different conditions. In compassion fatigue, a person develops emotional exhaustion after encountering people with trauma, rather than from the demands and stress of care work itself.

According to a 2019 review, compassion fatigue could also be an early symptom of caregiver burnout. However, more studies are necessary to support this link.

Caregiver burnout symptoms are similar to those of anxiety and depression. For example, they can cause fatigue, loss of interest in activities, and hopelessness.

When a caregiver experiences significant stressors — for example, family conflict — their risk of developing depression increases.

Learn more about anxiety and depression.

If a person thinks they are experiencing caregiver burnout, they can take action to prevent their symptoms from worsening. These include:

  • consuming nutrient-dense foods
  • exercising regularly
  • resting when possible
  • paying attention to signs of stress

However, these lifestyle practices can be hard to follow. Developing a regular routine can help a person build self-care into their day, and asking friends and family for assistance can free up time.

Joining a support group is a good way to prevent caregiver burnout. People can seek advice and receive emotional support from people in a similar position.

Furthermore, the sense of community support groups provide can reduce or eliminate feelings of isolation.

Caregiver burnout develops when a person feels overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. It is important that a person is aware of the signs of burnout so they can act quickly before the condition grows worse.

Additionally, if a person does not receive support from family members or friends, they should consider getting in touch with a support group.