Thursday, January 3, 2013

Caregiving Kills

For the longest time I have talked about caregiver stress and the toll it takes. I’ve had many people including doctors and nurses talk to me about my stress level and what I need to do about it. I have always agreed, and I believed that it’s a serious issue for others, but secretly I always felt that it was just a way of saying, “Yeah, caregiving is very hard, but…”

And what follows that “but” is, “I’m not the one who is sick” or “Of course I feel bad” or “Yep I’m tired but I’ll get through this.”

But this week I got the nuts and bolts of why stress is bad—and not just bad for my mood or my emotions but quite bad for our bodies. And yeah, I always knew that caregiving makes people look older faster but I always thought they look older because we are so tired. But that’s not quite it.

Peter Vitaliano, who is a professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Washington explained to me that caregivers have a much higher incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes, and compromised immune systems because have prolonged exposure to extra high levels of Cortisol and adrenaline. It’s not that we look like we’re aging faster—we actually are aging faster. Our bodies, flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, are rapidly breaking down like a film running very fast…aging, aging, aging. And it’s not just the matter of how we look—though I do care about that, no question—but all of our cells and organs are aging faster too. And what comes with aging: illness, disability and yep—cancer.

So as cancer caregivers we are at a much higher risk of disease and particularly cancers. How about that?

Why does this mini scientific fact help me? Because I can picture it. When I get stressed or allow myself to stress out it’s as if a big hypodermic is going right into my arm and shooting me with a super-aging serum. And the scariest part is that these two main stress hormones are addictive. This is why it becomes so hard to stop caregivers from staying in stressful situations even though they may understand and may want to change things. We get used to that buzz just as we get used to that, “Only I can take care of him/her” codependence.

Yes, as always, much easier said than done. But somehow being able to picture myself “doing drugs” within my own body has gotten my attention big time.

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