- Mindset theory and research illuminate how to combat caretaker stress and increase well-being.
- Identify fixed mindset feelings and thoughts that undermine your action steps and replace them with growth mindset responses.
Do you remember the pivotal moment when you acknowledged you would be the caregiver for a loved one? Was it when an aging parent asked twice in the hour why you never stopped by when you visited yesterday? When your pediatrician shared that your child did not meet some important developmental milestones? A meeting with your partner’s oncologist discussing the pros and cons of different treatment options?
To have close relationships is to face the choice to give care.
This choice can be extraordinarily rewarding. Many caregivers report that supporting a dependent enriches them. Research also shows that it can be emotionally and physically stressful and may be related to increased mortality.
Perkins et al. (2013) found that caregivers reporting high strain were about two times more likely to die over five years–a robust finding across race, sex, and caregiving relationship groups.
Much has been written about how to be resilient in light of the demands of caregiving:
- Educate yourself about your loved one’s problem. Be realistic about your expectations.
- Care for your physical well-being. Eat healthfully, exercise, get adequate sleep, and medical check-ups.
- Delegate responsibilities to family, close friends, and healthcare home aides to shop for food, pay bills, and manage medications or daily care.
- Take time off, such as mini-breaks during the day, like a 20-minute walk, or take an occasional week away.
- Find a support system. Reach out to others who face similar situations - in person or online groups found through hospitals, schools, mental health associations, or religious organizations
Combatting caregiver stress sounds straightforward: follow these recommendations to maintain your well-being. But like advice to reduce alcohol intake or to stop smoking, roadblocks bar your way. Barriers may be rooted in economic and social inequities, but a fixed mindset about caregiving is another potential obstacle.
Mindset research (Dweck, 2006) illuminates the understandable stress of caregiving. It provides a path to become more resilient when shameful, overwhelmed, resentful, or depressed feelings mire you as you tend to the needs of a dependent.
Mindset research shows that people hold two views of their basic qualities: fixed and growth mindsets.
A fixed mindset (FM) is a view that your qualities are unchangeable. You have a certain amount of ability or attribute–perhaps high or perhaps low–and there is little you can do to alter it. When you tackle something important to you, and the going gets tough, you begin to worry that you don’t have what it takes.
Faced with trials of caregiving, FM asks, “Am I competent or not? Strong or not? Selfless or not?”
Anyone can slip into a fixed mindset with the demands of caregiving and begin to think they are “not enough.” It is a human response, and the above well-intentioned recommendations may trigger a fixed mindset:
- Suggestions that you enlist the assistance of friends, family, or support groups. FM utters, “If I’m strong, then I don’t need help from others. People will think I’m incapable."
- Recommendations that you engage in self-care. FM whispers, “Strong, selfless caretakers do not take time to exercise, need extra sleep, or time off.”
- Signs of caregiver stress such as anxiety, resentment, or exhaustion. FM feels guilty: “If I love this person, I should feel happy. How can it be so trying?” FM whispers these negative feelings mean you’re weak/selfish.
- Well-meaning others share strategies to improve your caretaking. FM says, “They think they are better than me–that I’m incompetent.”
The key to pursuing what you value–caring for your loved one while maintaining your well-being–is sustaining a growth mindset.
A growth mindset (GM) believes that although you start with a certain amount of an attribute, you can increase it through effort. GM accepts caring for someone else as well as your own life is incredibly complicated. GM says you acquire caregiving skills through effort; other people can be resources as you hone your caregiving abilities. GM says educate yourself: You were not trained to be a caregiver and are not an expert for your loved one’s disease or problem. GM says the difficulty is expected: The job is tough, and you are striving to get better at it.
And a growth mindset says caregivers have different strengths. What are yours? What do you value, and how do you show your care? Read or sing to them? Tend to their physical needs? Manage the bills? Would you like to get better at a caregiver skill you lack, or would it be best to delegate it to someone else?
To combat caregiver stress with a growth mindset...:
- Develop a growth action plan with a series of somewhat risky steps that bring you closer to following the above recommendations.
- Visualize the first step in your plan and put it in your calendar. For example, set up a specific time to attend a support group meeting or invite a neighbor who is also caregiving for coffee so that you may share your challenges and learn tips from each other.
- When caregiving is hard, pause and ask yourself, “Do I view my efforts to develop my caregiving skills with a fixed mindset?” Begin the shift to a growth mindset by telling yourself, “I anticipate difficulty as I strive to meet the demands of caregiving.” Look for the telltale signs of a fixed mindset with concerns that you are “not enough,” and accept them with compassion as you shift to a growth mindset.
The choice to support a dependent can be amazingly rewarding. Expect some negative emotions and self-doubt as you learn this new role and responsibilities. These are the signals of a fixed mindset.
Tolerate these fixed mindset feelings and take the next growth step to move closer to caring for your loved one while maintaining your well-being. These feelings are likely as you stretch yourself to tackle the demanding but fulfilling task of caretaking.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Perkins M, Howard VJ, Wadley VG, Crowe M, Safford MM, Haley WE, Howard G, Roth DL. (2013). Caregiving strain and all-cause mortality: evidence from the REGARDS study. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci.;68(4):504-12.