As a caregiver of intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals, it isn’t uncommon to face difficulties and challenges along the road that cause great deals of physical and mental stress and fatigue.

This is especially true with caregivers balancing various other aspects of their lives on top of caregiving, including work, school, volunteer work and their own families.

When this stress and fatigue of being a caretaker builds up and goes unchecked, the resulting state of being can be described as caregiver burnout.

Defining Caregiver Burnout (a.k.a. Caretaker Fatigue)

Caregiver Burnout or Fatigue occurs when individuals caring for the ill or elderly experience great stress, fatigue, anxiety and/or depression to the point that these individuals also experience physical ailments, emotional and behavioral shifts, negative thought patterns and relationship changes.

Similarities with Compassion Fatigue and Depression

Another similar condition is called compassion fatigue. According to The Caregiver Space, caregiver burnout takes a long time to build up whereas compassion fatigue can come on suddenly.

Many medical and mental health professionals would say that neither caregiver burnout or compassion fatigue are forms of depression, although caretakers can experience both at the same time.

Depression, according to the Mayo Clinic, more accurately entails individuals experiencing the following symptoms:

  • “Feelings of sadness or emptiness
  • Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy; even small tasks require extra effort
  • Changes in appetite—often reduced but increased in some people
  • Anxiety, agitation or restlessness—for example, excessive worrying or an inability to sit still
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself for things that are not your responsibility
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering
  • Frequent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide.”
If you or someone you know are experiencing frequent thoughts of death or suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They’re available 24/7 via phone (1-800-273-8255) or chat.

Causes of Caregiver Burnout

Sometimes, it’s too easy for someone as selfless as a caregiver to lose sight of their own needs. While they’re busy taking care of intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals, caregivers may neglect their own physical, mental and emotional needs.

Neglecting one’s own health can quickly become overwhelming and ultimately cause burnout.

As mentioned earlier, caretakers can also become overwhelmed after, perhaps unsuccessfully, balancing other roles in their lives, such as that of a spouse, parent or friend. This may be compounded by caregivers ‘biting off more than they can chew’ or pushing themselves too hard.

Caretakers need to know that it’s ok to want and need a break. The health and happiness of the caretaker is just as important as that of the person for whom they’re caring.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout can help caregivers aware of their own mental and physical health, as well as prevent the onset of caregiver burnout syndrome.

Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout Syndrome

Across the board, many experts agree on the following as being common symptoms of caregiver burnout syndrome:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, guilt and anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Getting sick often
  • Changes in eating/sleeping habits
  • Relationship problems/withdrawal from friends and family
  • Irritability or inability to relax
  • Constant fatigue
  • Physical tension when at rest
  • Behavioral escapes (drugs, alcohol, material goods, etc.)
  • Constant negative thinking
  • Not taking care of one’s own physical, mental and emotional needs
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable

If you think you or a caregiver that you know is experiencing symptoms of caregiver exhaustion, we recommend you take the Caregiver Burnout Quiz. In addition, you should make an appointment with your primary care physician or a therapist to discuss your symptoms.

Relieving & Managing Caregiver Burnout

Potentially the biggest way to relieve and manage caregiver burnout if you’re experiencing the aforementioned symptoms is to regularly take part in self-care. Make sure, out of every 24-hour day, that you dedicate some time – however much you can afford – to be by yourself and nurture your own physical, mental and emotional health.

Whether you surf the web, blog or write in a journal, cook a nice meal, watch a movie, do yoga, exercise, meditate, hang out with friends or family, or something else, it’s important to have time away from work to enjoy yourself.

There are also support services and organizations for caregivers that help them to cope with any difficulties or challenges experienced as a caretaker. These support services and organizations can also provide information and resources that may be helpful.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of caregiver burnout, there are ways to begin to heal on your own.

Ways to Get and Keep Burnout Under Control

To counteract feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, recognize that you’re making a positive difference in people’s lives regardless. You may not be able to help and/or control everything about an individual’s mental or physical health, but the fact that you care and are trying to help is enough to feel empowered in your role as a caregiver.

Make smart, healthy choices when it comes to eating and exercising to prevent weight gain or loss and energy/sleep problems. Speak with a dietician and/or a physical trainer for assistance. At the very least, though, avoid fast food by eating healthy foods from home, make sure you get seven to eight hours of sleep each night, and exercise regularly.

It’s also important to not let your feelings and thoughts well up inside of you. Speak to a close friend or family member regularly or schedule an appointment with a therapist to discuss stresses in your life. Talking about your thoughts and feelings can be a relief in and of itself, but it can also help you to sort through the clutter once it’s out in the open.

Lastly, make sure to appreciate yourself any way you can. If you aren’t getting validation from others around you, reward yourself to get the appreciation you’ve earned. Try something new, go on a shopping spree, take a vacation – appreciate yourself and recognize your hard work and selfless care.

Preventing Overwhelming Stress & Exhaustion as a Caretaker

In addition to the ways to manage caregiver burnout, you can prevent burnout in other ways, too.

  • Stay up to date with regular doctor visits to assess your physical and mental health
  • Join a caregiver support group or network
  • Take time out to take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally
  • Talk to a loved one, a close friend or a professional (a therapist, social worker, religious leaders, etc.)
  • Educate yourself on caregiving lifestyles and burnout and be aware of the signs and symptoms
  • Eat healthy and exercise regularly
  • Practice mindfulness

Bancroft, a fellow nonprofit organization focused on providing programs and services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has an excellent infographic on caretaker burnout with tips on how to prevent it.


As caregivers, you’re doing a lot for others – just don’t forget to do something for yourself everyday!

We are a non-profit organization dedicated to serving intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals. We are in the process of establishing community homes in which individuals can receive the support they need from their peers and the guidance they need from loving caretakers. Our desire is to make the residents of a SMILE home part of the community in which they live.

For more information, contact us today!
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