12 warning signs of carer burnout

Jill is a parent carer from Camden and was a member of the team at Camden Carers from 2008 until 2021. Here, Jill talks us through carer burnout - how to stop it , how to heal and how to reduce the chance of it happening. We can read Jill’s own caring story here.

As carers, it seems as though we are constantly on the go. If we are not busy meeting all the immediate daily needs, we are thinking about everything that has to be done next. It can feel relentless and the constant pressure can overwhelm us and lead to burnout.

Instead of carrying on until we hit that wall and realise we just can’t keep going – maybe losing the will and compassion to care, or facing a greater breakdown – it’s healthier to find ways to watch for the warning signs of burnout. Below, we will look at what these signs are, what to do and where to go for help if needed.

What is carer burnout?

Burning out means reaching the end of our reserves – a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.

Burnout is caused by excess stress over a sustained period of time. It can make us feel drained, foggy-headed, unable to cope, and this can lead to compassion fatigue, or losing the will to care.

Different types of stress

Let’s look at what we mean by stress and then explore the physiological process of how we respond to stress. Stress comes in two forms: Eustress and Distress. I like to think of these as Useful Stress and Difficult Stress:

1. Eustress is beneficial stress

It helps motivate us and get us out of bed in the morning. Examples of eustress might be getting ready for work on time, booking holidays, taking exercise, anticipation of starting something new, etc. Eustress floods our system with feel good hormones, called endorphins, making us feel motivated and positive.

2. Distress is harmful

Distress implies an external – and usually temporary – cause of great physical or mental strain. If temporary, the distress can be relieved by taking positive action to avoid continuing the strain. Often within the caring situation, the strain and therefore distress is prolonged, and it frequently feels there is no let up. The hormones relating to distress are adrenaline and cortisol.

The stress hormones

Adrenaline is produced by the adrenal glands which are situated at the top of the kidneys. Maybe we have heard the term “adrenaline junkie”, a person who loves the thrill of dangerous activity because of the adrenaline high it gives them.

Adrenaline gives us the strength to cope with a situation of danger. This response is called “fight or flight” and is a hard-wired physiological reaction. When faced with danger, our bodies produce sufficient adrenaline to help us either stay and fight the danger or run away from it.

During periods of prolonged stress, our bodies can go into a more or less continuous state of fight or flight, with little or no time for the adrenal glands to rest and recover. This will lead to adrenal exhaustion with symptoms of fatigue, brain fog, cravings for sugary or salty foods, headaches, mood swings etc. Eventually, there will be little, or no adrenaline being produced to give us the energy we need.

Here is an analogy:

  • Your car needs oil to run efficiently and enough oil is released in response to the needs of the engine. There is an oil gauge that tells you if the oil is running low and if you don’t replace the oil, the car will eventually be running on empty. This will damage parts of the car – you may begin to hear strange noises; a burning smell and the engine will overheat and eventually fail. When a car has no oil, it's running time is about 15 minutes before it burns out.

Cortisol assists in stressful situations by increasing the available sugars in the bloodstream, enhancing our brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. It also raises our heart rate and blood pressure; and suppresses bodily functions that would be non-essential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation – e.g. digestion. Sustained cortisol production may lead to a failure of cortisol’s protective role, leading to high blood pressure, lowered immunity, inflammation, weight gain and even diabetes.

12 warning signs of carer burnout - our burnout gauge

Referring back to our car analogy – there is a gauge that indicates when the oil is getting low. Is there a human equivalent? What kind of gauge would help us realise that our reserves are running low? The following can be indicators that our burnout gauge is running on empty and we are in danger of hitting the wall:

1. Feeling depressed or emotionally numb