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Coping with stress and depression

Stress and depression can affect anyone, but the pressure and expectations of caring can make carers particularly vulnerable.


About stress

We have all experienced stress at some point but when you have caring commitments, it can gradually build up and can feel debilitating.

Stress is caused by the many demands made on our time and energy and can be heightened by the expectations we have of ourselves. Not all stress is negative – stress can alert you to potential dangers and can also spur you on to achieve a goal or complete a task. However, sometimes the balance tips too far and the pressure becomes so intense or so persistent that you may feel unable to cope.

Stress can make it hard to cope with the demands of caring. You can become more and more exhausted, tense and irritable, putting a strain on relationships. This can make you feel you are losing control over your life and that there is no way of regaining this control.

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Coping with stress

The first step to dealing with stress is to recognise that it is happening. You may have so little time to yourself that you don’t realise you are suffering at first. When you do start noticing the symptoms of stress (see below), it's important not to struggle on, hoping it will go away. The sooner you face the problem, the better, and just talking about how you feel can help you find a way to deal with it.

The symptoms of stress can be both mental and physical, and can vary from person to person. Here are a few examples:

  • Mental symptoms can include anxiety, anger, depression, lack of appetite, sleeplessness, crying often, tiredness and difficulty concentrating.
  • Physical symptoms can include cramps, muscle spasms, chest pains, dizziness, restlessness, nervous twitches and breathlessness.

Over the long term, stress can affect your health – putting you at risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to more serious health conditions.

Support

Talking to other people who are in a similar situation can be a great help when you are feeling stressed. Not everyone finds this easy, but it may be a surprise to find that others feel the same way as you. For example, you could join a local carers' group to share your experiences.

Your local carers' group or local council may also be able to help you get a break from caring so you can allow yourself some breathing space. Even taking just a couple of hours each week to treat yourself to something you enjoy can make a considerable difference.

If you are not the sort of person who wants to join a group why not try talking online at the Carers UK website forum where you can meet other carers anonymously, share experiences and find support or join one of our Share and Learn experiences, many of which are fun and interactive sessions covering dance, music and art.

If you can, talk to your family and friends as well. Just talking about how you feel and getting it out into the open, can make you feel better. Sharing your feelings and problems with those close to you may mean that they realise that you need more help from them.

Self-help

If you are feeling tearful, angry or have other symptoms of stress, there are a number of steps you can take to help bring down your stress levels. These include:

  • Go out of the room – or right outside if you can – for at least five minutes. Take a deep breath and hold it for a count of three, then breathe out. Repeat again, until you feel more relaxed, but not so often that you feel dizzy.
  • Relax your muscles. Tense muscles are a physical sign that you are stressed. Training on relaxation techniques is often available locally. Your local healthy living centre or local library may have information about this as well as books or tapes about relaxation.
  • Don’t drink or smoke too much. Alcohol and cigarettes have harmful effects on your body, and make you more at risk of the physical effects of stress.
  • Caffeine can have similar effects on your body as stress, so watch your coffee intake.
  • Get active. Physical exercise is a simple way to relieve tension. Even a walk to the shops can help reduce your stress levels.
  • Try to pace yourself and tackle one thing at a time. Be realistic about what you expect of yourself. Learn to say “no” to other people, some of the time at least.

Treatment

Talk to your GP, who will have seen a lot of patients with stress-related problems. Your GP may recommend lifestyle changes, counselling or another talking treatment. A counsellor will listen to you, and help you to find ways of dealing with your stress.

There are also medicines you might be able to take to relieve some of the symptoms of stress. If stress is making you feel depressed, your GP may prescribe antidepressants to help make life feel better. Different antidepressants suit different people, so if you aren’t happy with the one you are prescribed, go back to your GP. Consider all of your options before taking antidepressants. Ask your GP for information about side effects. Tell your GP if you would prefer to try talking treatments first.

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About depression

Depression is when we feel low or sad and can’t find any pleasure in life. Many of us feel like this sometimes, but depression is when these feelings last longer and are more extreme. It is an illness, just as flu and chickenpox are so don't hesitate to speak to your doctor if you feel you are experiencing it or may be at risk.

One in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year, according the the mental health charity, Mind. Some people experience a temporary low (perhaps linked to bereavement, the illness of a family member, redundancy or divorce). However, sometimes this can turn into depression if this sinking feeling lasts and doesn't go away.

Knowing what the symptoms are, who you should talk to and what treatments are available is important:

You may feel:

  • hopeless, irritable, anxious, worried or tearful.
  • Feeling unable to cope with every-day things that you would not have thought twice about in the past.
  • Losing your appetite, losing weight or having trouble sleeping.
  • In extreme cases you might even think about harming yourself or other people.
  • Depression can build up gradually, so you may not realise how much it is affecting you. And because of the stressful nature of their lives, carers can be more prone to depression.

If you have recognised any of these symptoms in yourself, you may be affected by depression. The NHS has a helpful self-assessment tool you could try: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/clinical-depression/overview/

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Coping with depression

Opening up

There are a number of different types of depression so it's important not to generalise or underestimate what you are going through. If you are experiencing a persistence of any of the symptoms mentioned above, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor and talk it through. You may find it helpful to speak to a close friend or relative first. The important thing is not to bottle up your feelings; opening up can be the first step to recovering. If there is no one you feel you can turn to, the Samaritans run a 24-hour helpline where you can talk to someone confidentially.

Support groups

It can feel very difficult to reach out to others when you feel this way, but taking that step to join a community such as a walking group or online social support group may help to switch your mind to a more positive area of focus. We host Share and Learn sessions which are held on Zoom and cover a range of topics from activities like dance and seated martial arts, to the arts, crafts and wellbeing. You can also search for local groups using our local directory or contact your council or trust for details of what's available in your area.

Lifestyle changes

What might seem like very small changes to make your lifestyle healthier can make a very positive difference to how you feel. Many people take up running or walking for the physical benefits and are amazed at how it can also transform their mental health.

Eating regular meals with a good variety from the main food groups may seem obvious, but it can be easy to neglect our needs in this area and slip into bad habits, such as comfort eating which can make us feel worse. Drinking the right fluids is also important for maintaining a good mood.

Time is often very limited when you're caring. If this is the case for you, try to take small chunks of time to do therapeutic exercises for you such as 10 minutes of yoga or taking five conscious minutes to observe nature. Some people find practising mindfulness a very helpful tool. See our wellbeing hub for more ideas and the mental health charity Mind have lots of helpful suggestions on their website.

Getting professional support

The effects of depression can be debilitating and it's important to seek professional support if this is the situation for you. Your doctor will look at the best way to treat it, just as they would any physical ailment. For an idea of what types of therapies are available, you may find it useful to look at this section of the NHS website.

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The menopause - and its link to stress, depression and exhaustion

If you're going through the menopause

There’s been a lot of talk about the menopause recently on TV and radio. And yet, unfortunately, it is a subject that is not often spoken openly about. When you are already hard pushed with caring tasks, it can feel like an additional load to deal with, both emotionally and physically.

Usually between the ages of 45 and 55 years of age, a woman's oestrogen levels decline and her periods end. This is called the menopause and is a normal part of ageing. The average age is 51 but this can vary.

Most women will experience some symptoms. You may experience any of the following:

Physical 

Psychological/emotional

Hot flushes, palpitation  

Mood swings/disturbance

Sleep disturbance

Lack of confidence

Tiredness, exhaustion

Anger/agitation

Irregular/heavy periods

Anxiety/panic attacks

Pain – diverse, body wide           

Reduced cognitive function, confusion

Genito-Urinary problems

Depression

If you're experiencing any of these effects and are finding it hard to cope, it is important to seek help and support, especially if it is affecting your quality of life, as well as those you live with or care for. You can find guidance about when to see a GP and treatments available on the NHS website

The Menopause Charity and International Menopause Society can also offer sources of help and support.  

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