Caregivers, are you experiencing any of the following symptoms?

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Guilt
  • Changes in how well you sleep or how much you eat
  • Crying spells that catch you off guard
  • Emotional numbness
  • Nightmares
  • Shock
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid breathing
  • Inability to stop thinking about traumatic events

I know you’re looking at this list and saying, “Of course, I’ve experienced some of these feelings during, and after, caregiving – some days I experience them all at the same time!” It’s understandable that you may have a wide range of feelings and emotions while you’re caring for a loved one, or after the loved one you were caring for has died. But it might interest you to know that while the symptoms listed above fit caregivers to a tee, they were not found in articles about the stress of Caregiving. They are all from articles about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

While it’s generally accepted in the medical community that PTSD symptoms manifest in people who have experienced trauma related to war, natural disasters, car or plane crashes, terrorist attacks, sudden death of a loved one, rape, kidnapping, assault, sexual or physical abuse, and childhood neglect, the trauma of caregiving is rarely included in articles about traumatic events that contribute to PTSD.

Read this description of PTSD:
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. PTSD can affect those who personally experience the catastrophe, those who witness it, and those who pick up the pieces afterwards, including emergency workers and law enforcement officers. It can even occur in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma. Most people associate PTSD with battle–scarred soldiers–and military combat is the most common cause in men–but any overwhelming life experience can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.”

As a caregiver, you know how traumatic caring for an ailing or dying loved one is; how helpless you feel; how overwhelming all of your responsibilities can become; how unpredictable and uncontrollable your loved one’s disease and symptoms are. So the next time you’re feeling like a wimp because you burst into tears occasionally, or an idiot because you keep forgetting things, or a grump because you lost your temper for a second, or an insomniac because you can’t sleep at night, or a hypochondriac because you keep having unexplainable pains that come and go, cut yourself some slack. Caregiving is one of the hardest things a person can choose to do for someone they love, and the inherent stress and trauma creates a myriad of mental and physical problems.

Not everyone who has experienced a traumatic event has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many people experience traumatic events, and it’s normal to have strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, or stress afterwards. You may be experiencing some of the symptoms of PTSD, but this doesn’t mean you have PTSD. Many of the symptoms of PTSD are part of the body’s normal response to stress.

For this reason, mental health professionals have come up with specific requirements that must be met to get a diagnosis of PTSD. These requirements are referred to as Criteria A – F and are outlined in the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The six criteria for a PTSD diagnosis are described below.

Criterion A
A person must have experienced a traumatic event where both of the following occurred:
•    The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event where there was the threat of or actual death or serious injury. The event may also have involved a threat to the person’s physical well-being or the physical well-being of another person.
•    The person responded to the event with strong feelings of fear, helplessness, or horror.
Criterion B
The person experiences at least one of the following re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD:
•    Frequently having upsetting thoughts or memories about a traumatic event.
•    Having recurrent nightmares.
•    Acting or feeling as though the traumatic event were happening again, sometimes called a “flashback.”
•    Having very strong feelings of distress when reminded of the traumatic event.
•    Being physically responsive, such as experiencing a surge in your heart rate or sweating, to reminders of the traumatic event.
Criterion C
The person experiences at least three of the following avoidance symptoms of PTSD:
•    Making an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event.
•    Making an effort to avoid places or people that remind you of the traumatic event.
•    Having a difficult time remembering important parts of the traumatic event.
•    A loss of interest in important, once positive, activities.
•    Feeling distant from others.
•    Experiencing difficulties having positive feelings, such as happiness or love.
•    Feeling as though your life may be cut short.
Criterion D
The person experiences at least two of the following hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD:
•    Having a difficult time falling or staying asleep.
•    Feeling more irritable or having outbursts of anger.
•    Having difficulty concentrating.
•    Feeling constantly “on guard” or like danger is lurking around every corner.
•    Being “jumpy” or easily startled.
Criterion E
The symptoms described above must have lasted for more than a month. If the symptoms have lasted for less than a month, you may have another anxiety disorder called Acute Stress Disorder.
Criterion F
The symptoms described above have a great negative impact on your life, interfering with work or relationships.

As with any problem, knowing that you have the problem is the first step toward wellness. Once you put a name to the problem you can begin to do research and get help for it. Some people try to manage their PTSD in unhealthy ways (alcohol, drugs) but there are ways to cope with the symptoms of PTSD and try to turn it around. Finding the coping strategies that work for you is important – strategies that work for you may not work for someone else, and some strategies may work for you at some times and not during others.

Get professional help. If you think you may have PTSD, it’s important that you meet with a mental health professional trained in assessing and treating PTSD. There are therapists who specialize in PTSD, and  psychological treatments  and medicinal treatments that have been shown to be effective in alleviating symptoms. Even if you don’t have PTSD, if you’re experiencing these symptoms and your life is being disrupted by them, reach out for support. Many people who suffer from PTSD, and caregivers especially, are embarrassed to admit they have a problem to others. They feel selfish turning attention on themselves when their loved one is suffering or has died. It’s difficult to overcome the shame, but isolation will only compound symptoms, while social interaction with supportive friends, family, or a support group is beneficial.

Learn to relax. Make time to do something that will focus your mind outside of yourself, and get some fresh air and possibly some exercise – long walks in a pretty place, yoga or meditation, gardening, biking, sailing, or swimming. Less active distractions are still good for your mind: movies, reading, spending time with friends or animals, cooking classes, a hot bath, listening to music, whatever works for you. If you’ve been avoiding activities that were previously pleasurable to you, give them a chance. If they no longer please you as they once did, at least you’re trying, and you may discover something new to take their place.

Express yourself. Find ways to get what’s all jumbled up inside of you out and onto paper, canvas, or wood. Get a journal and write a little every day. Keep a Dream Journal by your bedside table. If you’ve never painted before, find a class, or go to the art or hobby store and buy some cheap canvas panels, some paints in colors that appeal to you, and a few brushes. Just paint. It doesn’t have to look like anything, sometimes just smearing colors around is therapeutic.  It’s best to start with Acrylic paints because they don’t smell, they dry fast, and you can clean the brushes with soap and water.

Get healthy. Never underestimate the connection between your body and your mind. Start being mindful about what you’re eating – get some fresh fruits and veggies in your diet. The next time you’re waiting for the toast to pop up, do some pushups against the kitchen counter. Start moving – your body’s just waiting for a chance to show you what it can do, and your mind will follow.

Spirituality. Many people find comfort in the spiritual realm. Whether you find it in a church or in a forest, connecting with a power greater than yourself can give you a much needed sense of peace.



I wrote this article because while doing research on soldiers and PTSD, I came across the above diagnostic criterion and realized that I still experience some of the symptoms of PTSD, even thought it’s been six years since my husband died. But I’m lucky, I possess the abilities to channel my feelings positively and constructively, and I have a good support system of friends, so I continue to mend. Some of the caregivers I communicate with exhibit all the symptoms of PTSD and say they wonder daily how much longer they’ll be able to hold on, mentally, physically, and financially.

In the current economic climate, many caregivers have the added stress of housing, feeding, and purchasing medications for their loved ones while struggling financially, or unemployed. Their contribution to society, and the burden they spare hospitals and governmental agencies from carrying, is undeniable. Visit our “Financial Aid” and “Rai$e Money Online” pages for more about financial relief.

Financial aid; tax breaks; eldercare benefits; wellness programs; affordable insurance plans that cover uninsured dependent parents; free legal and financial advice around Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance issues – there are many ways we can begin to lighten the load carried by this growing segment of our society. And by recognizing that caregivers suffer from PTSD, the medical community will be opening doors to diagnosis and treatment for a group that has suffered in silence for too long. Employers, the medical community, and the government has to do more to help this growing segment of the population, before they fall ill themselves and end up in hospital beds alongside their loved ones.



Mayo Clinic
Web MD
Help Guide


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