Finding The Balance: Self-Care While Caring For A Loved One With A Chronic Illness

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Caring for someone with a chronic illness is often a complex experience. It can be deeply rewarding to show love to this person in this way. However, your loved one may require a lot of your time, attention, and energy, which can lead to stress, frustration, grief, overwhelm, and even burnout, anxiety, or depression. Finding ways to care for yourself while in this role can be challenging, but it’s usually crucial for your well-being and the well-being of your loved one. See below for an exploration of ways you might strike this balance.

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Understanding caregiver stress

Experiencing stress from time to time is a normal part of life, and some level of it may even be positive if it moves us toward constructive action. However, a caregiver often manages situations that can cause unhealthy and/or chronic stress, which can be harmful to both physical and mental well-being if not healthily managed. Examples of stress-inducing situations caregivers may face include:

  • Not having enough time to manage everyday life on top of caregiving duties
  • Guilt about feelings of irritation, anger, or frustration
  • Financial costs
  • Getting time off of work or trying to fit work projects around caregiving duties
  • Navigating the medical establishment
  • The physical effort required, if the patient is unable to move independently.
  • Guilt about not spending enough “fun” or “quality” time with the person (as opposed to necessary care activities)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that informal caregivers in particular may be more prone to health concerns caused by heightened stress levels, and that the physical, emotional, psychological, and financial strain they may experience qualifies as a public health concern. These types of strain can happen because caregivers may neglect their own mental and physical health as they have become so focused on caring for another person. 

Here are some potential warning signs of caregiver stress to be aware of:

  • New fluctuations in appetite or weight 
  • Feeling worried all the time
  • Irritability or quick anger
  • Substance misuse
  • Headaches, body aches, or other physical ailments
  • Losing interest in activities that previously enjoyed
  • Feelings of overwhelming sadness or anxiety
  • Oversleeping or insomnia

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

If you experience these symptoms as a caregiver, it can be helpful to know that you’re not alone. Caregiver stress is common, especially for informal and/or live-in caregivers. Day-to-day care, emotional stress, physical exhaustion, and balancing one’s roles as a parent, child, partner, or other family member with being the person in charge can be overwhelming. Also know, however, that help is available, as we’ll discuss below.


Tips for managing caregiver stress

The first step in managing caregiver stress is often recognizing yourself in the caregiver role and understanding what this label entails. Without acknowledging the situation and its difficulties, finding solutions is unlikely. Often, when a person understands and embraces the caregiver role and names the challenges it presents, they can work toward finding balance in their life. 

Here are some other strategies that may help caregivers manage stress. 

Join a support group

Caregiving can be a challenging role to play, and connecting with other people who have also experienced its ups and downs is often helpful. There are support groups of various types and formats out there that provide a space where caregivers can connect and talk. Some even focus on caregiving for individuals with specific illnesses. Sharing both frustrations and triumphs with a community that understands can be cathartic—not to mention that members can share helpful information regarding care or resources. If you can’t find a group in your area, you may be able to find one online. 

Take care of your own health

One’s own personal self-care often falls to the wayside when caring for a loved one with a chronic illness. It can be hard to find the time or energy to devote to maintaining healthy routines when already devoting so much time and energy to caring for someone else. That said, everyone deserves care, including caregivers themselves. Plus, caregivers will generally be better able to care for their loved one if they’re able to keep themselves in good health and good spirits too.

Exercising regularly, eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, and drinking water are core activities that a person should try and engage in regularly to maintain good health and support emotional resilience. Meditating, taking breaks, maintaining social connections, and finding time for joy can also be important components of health for caregivers. If this seems overwhelming, you might start small: taking a lap around the block while your loved one is resting, having a phone or video call with a friend when you prepare their food, and making nutritious meals that both you and your loved one can enjoy and benefit from are a few examples.

Ask for help

The CDC also indicates that taking regular breaks—often called respites—from caregiving responsibilities can be crucial to maintaining your health as a caregiver. It notes that these breaks can be covered by other family members or friends as well as some government and nonprofit agencies. 

In addition to reaching out for help arranging respite care, asking those in your life to support you in other ways as needed can be another powerful way to protect and maintain your own health. Asking a neighbor to pick up a few groceries for you, asking a friend if they have time and space to hear you vent, or asking a partner to massage your neck after a long day of physical exertion in your caregiving role are a few examples.

Need help managing caregiver stress?

Get professional support

If you feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities, are having trouble finding balance, and/or are experiencing symptoms of a condition like burnout, anxiety, or depression, you may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional. There’s strength rather than shame in reaching out for this kind of support.

Therapy for stress management

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of therapeutic treatment for various mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. It’s also often used to help people without mental health conditions, as it can help virtually anyone learn to recognize and shift negative thought patterns to improve their quality of life. CBT can also be used to impart stress management techniques and help a person develop healthy lifestyle habits. 

As a caregiver, you may feel that adding one more appointment to your life is impossible. However, with advances in telehealth technology, you can now engage in therapy sessions virtually from your phone, computer, or tablet. Online therapy is more convenient than in-person sessions for many people and it’s generally more cost-effective as well. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist and participate in sessions from the comfort of home or anywhere else you have an internet connection whenever it suits your schedule.

Numerous studies in recent years suggest the effectiveness of online therapy in general. Several studies also indicate its potential effectiveness specifically for providing support to caregivers. One in particular reports that caregivers for people with dementia found that online therapy helped them manage distress.


The responsibilities of a caregiver can feel overwhelming in terms of time and energy required. That’s why people in this role generally need to be intentional about caring for their own health and taking regular breaks so they can preserve their well-being as well as their caregiving capabilities. Reaching out to a therapist can also be helpful for people in this situation, whether they’re experiencing burnout or depression symptoms or could simply use emotional support or advice on coping strategies.
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