As a Health Advocate, I often have clients confide in me about the stress they are going through as they take care of their aging parents. Discussions focus on the struggles they experience as they try to still work, take care of their family, and spend time as a caregiver.

As I began in 2019, I reflected on the chronic stress I have as I help care for my own mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. I realized that the increase in my migraine headaches was likely a sign that the stress was really getting to me. I needed to make a change in what I was doing and refocus on taking care of myself while finding better coping skills.

Stress affects everyone and is a fact of life. Susceptibility to stress can vary from person to person and can be related to genetic factors, coping style, personality type, and the availability of social support.

If we have a serious problem and we don’t take advantages of the resources available to cope with harmful stress… this leads to distress. We may find ourselves overreacting to life events, feeling confused, having poor concentration, and getting sick. Sometimes stress can be a positive thing as it can enhance our performance and forces us to adapt to new circumstances. Stress becomes negative when it exceeds our ability to cope and fatigues our psychological and physical systems.

Chronic stress can increase our production of corticosteroids which can then weaken our immune system. Stress which changes our identity or social roles is beyond our control, and seems endless is likely to increase the likelihood of impacting our overall health and well-being.

Caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s disease can experience long periods of heavy psychological, physical and financial burdens. This can lead to increased anxiety and depression and physical changes such as increased blood pressure which can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, peptic ulcers, and even cancer.

The chronic stress of caretaking can literally make you sick. Developing new coping strategies is critical to lessening the long-term side-effects that chronic stress puts on many caregivers.

Next week, we’ll focus on coping strategies that can help with chronic stress, especially for those caregivers of family members with Alzheimer’s disease.