There's something called "caregiver burden," and it can lead to alcohol abuse. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) considers alcohol abuse as heavy drinking (excessive drinking) or binge drinking. Heavy alcohol use and binge drinking can increase a person's risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD), also called alcoholism or addiction.
The burden of caregiving can often lead to isolation and loneliness, giving rise to substance abuse. This article looks at whether caregivers are more vulnerable to alcohol abuse and how it plays into their attempts to cope with stress and exhaustion associated with caregiving.
What Is a Caregiver?
The term "caregiver" refers to people who provide non-medical care to another person (usually a family member) without pay. It can be a parent to a child, an adult child to their elderly parent, or one spouse to another. This type of caregiving is different from paid professional caregiving.
Caregivers are seen as compassionate, selfless individuals who sacrifice their time and, sometimes, their own needs to help someone. However, providing care can be stressful and burdensome. Little attention is given to how physically and mentally draining it is to care for someone else. The negative effects of their role and drinking behaviors are also often overlooked.
Physical and Mental Effects of Caregiving
The economic value of informal caregiving is priceless. Caregivers provide services, usually for free, that would otherwise cost hundreds of billions of dollars annually. This role also often comes at a high emotional cost to the caregiver, primarily psychological distress.
According to an American Journal of Nursing (AJN) publication, "Caregiving fits the formula for chronic stress." It creates physical and psychological strain for a long time. Secondary stress is also seen in areas such as work, family relationships, and finance. Other effects of caregiving include:
- Poor health habits
- Anxiety or depression
- Neglecting personal health
- Poor diet or eating habits
- Reduced immune function
- Increased risk of chronic illnesses
The length of time spent providing care, level of financial and social support, and personal commitments are factors that influence the level of strain. One study found that long-term caregivers suffer more than those offering short-term care.
The Link Between Caregiving and Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol abuse and dependence are problems faced by millions of Americans. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant (CNS) consumed for multiple reasons. People often drink for pleasure, to feel relaxed, or to cope with stress. However, the short and long-term after-effects can be damaging to your physical and mental health. They include drunkenness, risky behaviors, violence, organ damage, and alcohol addiction.
Research suggests a connection between caregiver strain and substance abuse. Several studies have linked the social and emotional burdens related to caregiving with alcohol abuse.
As already established, providing long-term care for loved ones can take a toll on physical and mental health. As such, caregivers who drink to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression may increase their risk of alcohol addiction.
Are Caregivers More Prone to Alcohol Abuse?
While research into alcoholism and caretakers is limited, the available evidence suggests many caregivers consume alcohol. One reason is to escape the stress of caregiving. A 1994 study by Connell showed 34.1% of spousal caregivers turned to drink as a coping strategy, and 2.3% of them frequently used alcohol as a coping strategy. Alcohol abuse involves frequent and excessive drinking.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
Someone who abuses alcohol may display physical, psychological, cognitive, or behavioral signs including:
- Daily or frequent drinking
- Frequent and strong urges to drink
- Trouble limiting alcohol intake
- Frequent drunkenness or always smelling of alcohol
- Drinking alone or in secrecy
- Isolation away from friends and family members
- Temporary blackouts
- Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, e.g., nausea or vomiting
- Drinking to relax or deal with stress
How Can Caregivers Cope with the Strain of Caregiving?
According to one study, caregivers with a higher burden of care tend to use more negative coping strategies, such as escape avoidance and distancing. Dysfunctional coping may worsen their quality of life or lead to substance abuse. The same study found that many caregivers used positive coping strategies such as problem-solving, acceptance, and social or religious support.
Caregivers, too, need care. As a caregiver, you can consider multiple healthy approaches to help manage stress and burnout. You can start by talking with your primary care physician. They may refer you for stress management, mental health counseling, or therapy. Other strategies include:
- Educational support
- Support groups
- Eating healthy and exercising
- Getting enough sleep
- Recreational activities with a peer group of caregivers
- Individual and family counseling sessions
- Watching for symptoms of anxiety or depression and speaking with your doctor right away
- Therapy for anxiety or depression
Providing caregivers with coping strategies may help decrease chronic stress and help reduce the physical, mental, and emotional burden and risk of alcohol abuse.
Alcohol Abuse Treatment for Caregivers
Even those who consistently provide help to family members or loved ones are not immune from alcohol abuse. In fact, the mental distress of this role is an underlying cause of substance abuse. If left unchecked, alcohol abuse leads to alcohol use disorder. Drinking, for whatever reason, has gone too far at this point.
If caring for a loved one has gotten the best of you, help is available in the form of substance abuse intervention and treatment at an alcohol rehab center. Care is delivered in an outpatient or inpatient setting depending on the severity of alcohol abuse. Treatment usually involves alcohol detox followed by cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and counseling. Other programs or therapies include 12-step principles, family therapy, and aftercare.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy: CBT is a standard mental health therapy done with a therapist. You will learn how to cope with stress or other problematic issues in healthy ways and manage alcohol abuse triggers.
Family therapy: Family therapy is designed to help those within your family understand how to help reduce the burden of caregiving on one person. This may include taking turns providing care or hiring professional help.
Support network: As a caregiver, you need a support system of people you can turn to for help when your role becomes overwhelming. They can include family members, peers in a community 12-step group, and your therapist. You can also lean on people within your support network when you're faced with alcohol cravings.
There's no doubt that caregiving is a noble but overwhelming and challenging job. Chronic stress is more likely if it's done long-term or you're juggling other responsibilities. A lack of social, financial, and family support increases the burden. That's why there is a greater need to prioritize your physical and mental health.
Understanding how caregiving can lead to chronic stress and alcohol abuse and the signs can help you get the professional help you need. Ask your doctor to help you find an alcohol treatment center, or use your preferred online search engine to locate one near you.
About the Author
Tasnova Malek, MD, graduated from Bangladesh Medical College and practiced as a primary care physician for six years in Bangladesh. After moving to the USA, she worked at Emory University Hospital in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and Hospital medicine research. Currently, she is working in the National Suicidal Prevention Center as well as in Sunshine Behavioral Health. In addition, she has extensive research experience in medicine and psychiatry in the USA.
Tasnova Malek, MD
Contributor since November 30th, 2021
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