Your Shirt is on Backwards and Inside Out: Family Caregivers are Stressed


Your Shirt is on Backwards and Inside Out: Family Caregivers are Stressed

IMG_1860We are all aware of the fight or flight response when something scary happens. The body automatically does things that will help us escape, evade, or fight the attacker. When humans lived more closely with nature in a hunting and gathering society, these automatic responses from our bodies were necessary to keep us from being eaten.

The body releases hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine. The functions of the body that are not necessary to keep us alive for the next 30 minutes (such as digestion, immunity, and sex drive) are shut down while those that are necessary to keep us alive (glucose to the muscles, tensing of the muscles, and mental alert/awake) during this stressful event are increased. Normally the hormone levels will return to normal and all the body’s functions will also return to normal after the stressor is gone and our lives are not in danger. Now imagine what would happen if these hormone levels don’t turn themselves off. Under chronic stress, these hormones do not return to normal and the effects on the body remain at a constant low-level state of fight or flight.

Family caregivers report higher levels of stress than non-caregivers according to recent studies. Even without scientific studies, it just makes sense that family caregivers would have high levels of stress. You are suddenly thrown into a world that you are unprepared for and now you have to learn lots of new skills and take on lots of new tasks. Over 66 million adults in the U.S. serve in some sort of caregiving role. A 2011 Gallup survey found that caregivers spend on average 13 days per month performing chores such as shopping, food preparation, housekeeping, laundry, transportation, and giving medication to the person they are caring for. Six days per month are spent eating, dressing, grooming, walking, bathing, and toilet visits. Additionally, family caregivers report spending an average of five hours per day providing companionship or supervision. With all these additional roles and time required to carry them out, it is no wonder that caregivers have higher levels of stress.

About a week after Kara was diagnosed with cancer, the kids and I went to our local park for a kid’s birthday party. I was preoccupied so I thought it would be good for us to get out of the house and have some fun time with friends. A little while into the party I lost my son, I couldn’t find him anywhere. I went from parent to parent asking them it they had seen Luke. I usually got a funny look and they walked away. After a few of these answers I was starting to panic a little, I had lost my son in the four-acre park full of woods with busy streets on two sides! Eventually I found someone willing to help me find him. Robbie pulled me aside, looked me in the eye and said, “He is on your shoulders, and by the way, your shirt is on backwards and inside out. I think you are a little stressed out right now.”

Family caregivers have a higher level of constant stress when compared with people who are not caregivers.  If you are a caregiver or know a caregiver this should not come as a surprise to you. However, what is not easily seen is the mental, emotional, and physical effects of caregiving -- for me, it was pretty obvious. If you know a family caregiver a simple act can make a big difference. Ask how you can help but ask with specifics, for example, “I am going to the grocery story, what can I get you?” instead of “can I do anything?” Getting a jug of milk for your neighbor while you are at the grocery store may save them an hour of time. If you really want to help, look for specific ways you can help a family caregiver – they are most likely preoccupied with other thoughts.

(Orginally published on my blog,


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I can so get the \"loosing the kid\" incident. Probably sounds extreme some, but that stress... !


Caregivers definitely become a caree, we just don't have people rallying around us like the original caree. However it all comes back to focus on the original caree, take care of the caregiver and you will take care of the caree.\r\n\r\nI have used that example many times when caregivers think they are all alone and loosing their mind because they do something silly like that.


Great post, Matt. Thank you for sharing this clear reminder from the perspective of the caregiver who is also ultimately a caree.