How You Handle Stress Is How You'll Handle Caregiving?


How You Handle Stress Is How You'll Handle Caregiving?

library_researchResearchers released the results of a study today which took a closer look at the stress of of caregiving. In essence, the study decided to answer this question: "Does caregiving cause psychological distress?"

The results showed that the associations between caregiving and different types of psychological distress (depression, anxiety, perceived stress and perceived mental health) depend largely on a person's genes and upbringing -- and less so on the difficulty of caregiving.

If an individual has a history of depression before being a caregiver, then "caregiving may be like putting salt on the wound," said Peter Vitaliano, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Washington (UW).

The press release about the study explains more:
Vitaliano argues that psychiatric states and psychological outcomes are a function of exposure to stressors and vulnerabilities (early family environment, genetic factors, disposition). How one responds to stressors also depends on a person's resources (coping, social supports, income).

Vitaliano said his past research has also shown that caregivers' stress hormone levels are especially high relative to other caregivers if they are high in dispositions, such as neuroticism and disagreeableness. He has also found that caregivers with chronic illnesses such as heart disease or cancer have more physical problems with their illnesses than do noncaregivers with chronic physical illnesses.

In essence, your caregiving stress will be affected by your ability to manage stress as well as the availability of resources to help you manage stress.

I write regularly about my concern that we've over-researched the caregiving experience and instead need to focus on providing support and help to family caregivers. I'm curious about this study, which looked at 1,228 female twins; some were caregivers and some were not. I would like to know more about the specifics of the caregiving situations, including:

  • For whom did they care (spouse, parent, other family member);

  • The length of time in a caregiving situation;

  • The caree's diagnoses and care needs;

  • The number of hospitalizations throughout the caregiving experience;

  • Family dynamics;

  • Age of the family caregiver and caree;

  • Whether or not the family caregiver worked.

Certainly, our stress management skills will affect how we handle difficult times during our life. I see that in my own family. I'm calm--my sisters are, well, not. I saw the difference in how each of us coped with my father's cancer diagnosis. Or, was it just my exposure to caregiving that kept me calm? I now spend much more time with my parents than my siblings do. I'm beginning to help and, I can tell you, it already stresses me out.

What's interesting to me about this study is that the lead researcher wanted to prove his own theory. "Vitaliano said he had long predicted that caregiving doesn't directly cause distress," the press release notes. "Because health care funds are limited, Vitaliano hopes that treatment interventions and policies will be targeted towards caregivers who are at the highest risk."

Certainly, research like this helps shine a light on the caregiving experience. I wonder, though, if it will really help us target those family caregivers with the greatest risks. Wouldn't it just be more helpful to actually research the interventions that help those family caregivers with the greatest risks? Meaning, the researcher already had a theory about those at risk. Why not simply find those family caregivers at risk and then provide them with various interventions to determine which intervention helps most? Or, why not simply ask us here which interventions help us manage our stress?

I agree that we all manage stress differently and that our emotional, mental and physical health will impact our ability to manage another stressful situation, like caregiving.

Just typing that sentence makes me mad.

Of course, this is true. It's frustrating when we again spend more research dollars to research the obvious.

Bottom line: Let's only research what helps family caregivers feel better during their stressful experience of caregiving. Let's design a research study that includes ways to support family caregivers. No more studying the stress. We know we have stressed-out family caregivers. Let's just go out and help them.

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