Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Depression & Carer Burnout. Can you recognise the signs?

 Self Portrait

I have been depressed for weeks, maybe even months. It crept in after I completed the PTSD therapy. Yes my flashbacks have virtually gone, which is a huge blessing but I am left with feelings of anxiety, grief and insecurity.
I am not happy. Is happiness not the opposite of Depression? Although I am depressed I am not always miserable so where am I emotionally? 

Then I heard Andrew Solomon say these words "The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment."
Yes! I thought to myself, it’s about vitality and nothing to do with happiness, so the big question is how do you nurture feelings of ‘Vitality’ when you are an exhausted Carer? My Doctors answer is a prescription for Prozac. She explained that being an exhausted, traumatised carer, living with high levels of stress and no sleep equals low levels of serotonin.

I am not a great fan of prescribed anti-depressants. Been there back in the 1990’s and that was when I only had me to worry about; let alone a husband and two disabled kids. The Prozac is sitting in the cupboard while I experiment with a cocktail of Rhodiola Root, Agnus Castus, Passiflora, Avena Sativa and Lemon Balm. As a Carer the side effects of anti-depressants do not mix with my caring role. At some point I might have to hold up the white flag and surrender to prescribed medication but for now I want to do it my way. Three weeks in and I would say my anxiety and mood is 50% better so I would say the alternative method is working. My thinking is less fuzzy and I feel like I can make some small plans and pick up the phone. Where as two weeks ago I didn’t want to leave the house.

I have been experiencing problems sleeping and this is a common problem for Carers who are often woken in the night by the person they care for. But this is a serious issue because without four hours or more of sleep you are heading towards multiple health problems. Serotonin levels are greatly affected by the number of hour’s sleep you have. A reduction in the hours you sleep can weaken your immune system and at it’s worst result in premature death.

The Cycle of Exhaustion

You can easily become trapped in a vicious cycle that goes something like this: The person you care for wakes you up several times a night because they are sick for several days or weeks. You average over that time between four or five hours sleep. You are exhausted day and night, which in turn leads you to crave sugar and carbohydrates, which turns to fat! You don’t want to exercise because you feel too tired. Yet exercise is a proven way to boost your serotonin levels and help you lose the weight from the food you were craving. But for some of us the big question is who looks after the person you care for while you exercise? Its not like you can leave them on their own while you pop down the gym.

So you continue in this cycle until the person you care for improves and you are able to sleep a little better. But now you find you are waking up in the night. Why? Because you have been so exhausted your serotonin levels have dropped and not only does serotonin improve mood, it is also responsible for ensuring you get a good nights sleep.  

Here are just some of the symptoms of serotonin deficiency: anger, being unusually sensitive to pain, carbohydrate cravings and binge eating, constipation, digestive disorders, feeling glum from lack of sunlight, feeling overwhelmed, hyper vigilance, insomnia, joylessness, low self-esteem, migraines, and poor cognitive function. Is this all sounding a bit too familiar?

My recent poor health I know I can put down to a difficult few weeks in February when the children where both very poorly and I was living on very little sleep. I am in no doubt that the bouts of depression and anxiety I experience have some connection with the times when I have had poor sleep as a result of being a Carer. At least now I am aware of this and so after periods of poor sleep I need to be aware of the things I can naturally do to boost my serotonin.

Serotonin Boosters include:

Exercise – 10 minutes of Cardio work is all it takes to start boosting your Serotonin levels again.

Balanced diet – try to have a balanced diet and supplement with Omega 3 oils, B Vitamins, Magnesium and Vitamin D during periods of stress.

Herbal SupplementsRhodiola Root has long been favoured as a natural anti-depressant and anti-fatigue supplement that has very few side effects. Passionflower (Passiflora) has in some studies on anxiety been shown to be as effective as anti-anxiety drugs in reducing levels of anxiety.

Sunlight – Proven to increase your levels of serotonin and Vitamin D. Try to go for a walk or sit in the sun for just 15 minutes a day to boost your levels.

Power of Positive thinking – as a carer this can be a tough one, but trying to change who you think about a situation can actively help to increase serotonin levels in the body.

So how do I get this vitality back that Andrew Solomon speaks of? I did read that he personally gets eight hours sleep a night. I am so jealous! I wish I could get eight hours a night as do half the Carers in the country who are looking after someone who requires medical help during the night. 

I think that we can only get the vitality back when the chemical balance in our brain is functioning better. Today I walked in to town for the first time in months, the sun was shining and I felt energised. That would not have happened even a week ago. There is no quick fix; it takes weeks and months of making adjustments to get back on track.

Steps we can take to Boost Vitality:

1.    Meditation. Meditation not only improves our mood but is also an opportunity to release old mental patterns. Think of it as like pulling the weeds out of the garden. We all need a mental declutter every now and again.

2.    Exercise. Short bursts of just 10 minutes a day is all that is needed.

3.    Balanced Diet – Lets ditch the sugar and saturated fat to fight fatigue and boost our energy levels. 

Meditation can help boost our mental wellbeing

As Carers we shouldn’t lose sight of our own health and wellbeing but so often we do. It is vital that we find the space to take care of ourselves. Being a Carer is socially isolating, it brings financial worries, and low self esteem. These are a dangerous mix that leads to depression and anxiety. Over 54% of female Carers suffer from depression and Carers are three times as likely to suffer from moderate to severe depression than the rest of the population. This is a frightening statistic that I feel won’t improve unless we recognise the symptoms of burn out in ourselves and take action.
I don’t want to be a statistic; I want to take action to improve my own wellbeing. So remember: Check in on how you are feeling, talk to someone about your symptoms, see your GP and make a plan to help yourself.

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