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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : My mother has advanced lung cancer and is receiving chemo. I live with her and am also her caregiver. My emotions are all over the place. I feel anxiety, sadness, anger, and guilt. Can you suggest anything to help me cope?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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December 10, 2013
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Caregiving is very stressful. Mixed emotions are common. One moment you feel angry at the person that needs constant attention. Then you feel guilty about harboring anger for a person you love.

However, it is not so easy to stop these emotions. It can be overwhelming. And it’s hard to feel reassured, even when you’re told these feelings are common. In fact, they are normal.

Talking to a psychotherapist about the caregiving relationship can provide perspective. With a therapist, you can explore the ups and downs of the relationship over the years. We are all imperfect. Our relationships are too. Conflict is inevitable.

Therapy can provide insight into deep-rooted conflicts. It can make sense of how current conflicts came to be. These conflicts, past and present, probably affect how you are managing the caregiving role. 

A therapist can offer practical guidance for coping with stress. For example, you can learn to manage your effort. You can set realistic expectations about what you can do each day. You can learn how to limit your loved one’s demands in a kind but firm way.

Anticipating a big loss adds to the complex feelings. A therapist can help you with those feelings, too.

You should address symptoms of depression. Adding antidepressants to psychotherapy can bring relief, even when there are good reasons — caregiver stress or fear of loss — to feel depressed. Medicine for anxiety and sleeping may also be useful.

The best advice is to mind your own health. It’s hard to assist others if you are not feeling well.

So make sure to sleep enough. Eat well. Exercise. Make time for yourself. This is easier said than done. But maybe you can let yourself feel more entitled to look after your own needs. 

People are often very reluctant to talk to their doctor about these feelings. But if you do, chances are that it will be the first step toward feeling better.

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