Caregiving, COVID-19 and your mental health

Woman working on phone and computer with toddler in her lap.

Caregiving has its rewards, but it has never been easy. And whether you’re caring for a child, a parent, a spouse, or another family member, caregiving has gotten more difficult and stressful in the past year. The combined stress of caregiving and COVID-19 has hurt women most, because women are more than 75 percent of the caregivers in the U.S.

We talked to April Sweeney, M.D., clinical psychiatrist at the OHSU Center for Women’s Health, about how these stressors are intensifying each other and how women can cope.

COVID-19 has been stressful for everyone, caregiver or no. “This was a trauma for all of us,” Dr. Sweeney says. “We have almost all felt some level of worry or uncertainty.”

For caregivers, who are already at greater risk for depression and anxiety, pandemic stress is an added burden.

“Ensuring the safety, success and health of another person is a lot of responsibility,” says Dr. Sweeney. “You’re always on call, there aren’t many breaks, and caregiving can be lonely.”

The pandemic has heaped even more worry and responsibility on caregivers. With schools closed, parents have been responsible for education, too. Or working from home while parenting at the same time. For those caring for someone with medical needs, the added worry of exposure to COVID-19 still continues.

How do I know if I need mental health support?

It can feel like anxiety and stress are the new normal. To a point, they are. But there is still a difference between normal worry and a diagnosable anxiety or depression disorder.

“How are you functioning? That’s the key question,” Dr. Sweeney says. “If you can’t fulfill the roles in your life that you used to, if you aren’t able to get up and go through your day, then you could benefit from mental health support.”

Some signs of anxiety to watch for include:

  • Excessive worrying
  • Muscle tension
  • Avoiding tasks or experiences due to fear

Some signs of depression to watch for include:

  • Feeling sad or blue all the time
  • Loss of interest in or inability to feel happiness
  • Poor concentration
  • Low energy
  • Insomnia
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

If you are experiencing these signs, don’t wait to seek help. Talk to your primary care provider, a mental health counselor, or call the free, confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Tips to manage stress

Even if you don’t have anxiety or depression, caregiving during this time can still be overwhelming. We asked Dr. Sweeney for some coping tips.

  • Ask for help when you need it. Don’t expect to do everything on your own, and identify who you can ask for support.
  • Take care of your own health too. Take the time to get your teeth cleaned, see your primary care doctor, or get your mammogram. If you aren’t healthy, you can’t care for someone else.
  • Take the pressure off at least once a day. Do something for yourself like eating a healthy meal, exercising or doing a hobby that distracts you from stressful news or life events.
  • Take one day at a time. You have a lot more control and certainty about today than about next week or next month. Focus more on today and less on the uncertainties of the future.
  • Connect with others. You aren’t alone. Talk to your friends or family about what you are going through. You may find they are feeling and dealing with many of the same things as you.
  • Go easy on yourself. There is no perfect and when you’re doing more than one full-time job, you can’t expect yourself to never drop a ball. Be flexible and compassionate with yourself.