Jan 19, 2017

Understanding Compassion Fatigue as a Caregiver

Whether you are a professional aged care worker or a family member caring for an ageing loved one, chances are you are a naturally empathetic and compassionate person. People with kind hearts and an innate ability to be compassionate toward others tend to be naturally drawn to caregiving roles.

Even the most loving person may eventually face a phenomenon known as compassion fatigue, where it feels as though your reserves of compassion have become stagnant. Here are a few things to keep in mind about compassion fatigue and how to deal with it:

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Nurse Carla Joinson coined the phrase “compassion fatigue” in 1992 to describe the experience of her fellow nurses who were completely overwhelmed by the accumulation of traumas and emergencies they dealt with at work. Compassion fatigue is when a caregiver, aged worker, nurse, or other helper becomes extremely burned out after many months or years of being selfless and giving. Compassion fatigue can also be described as a feeling of complete emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to feelings of despair and hopelessness.

Compassion fatigue is often brought on or exacerbated by an overloaded schedule and the feeling that your tasks are never complete. In addition, many empathetic people absorb and take on everyone else’s problems, suffering, and pain, eventually experiencing these difficulties as a form of secondary trauma.

Once you reach a state of compassion fatigue, you may find yourself becoming apathetic and isolated, noticing that you anger more easily, and even turn to destructive behaviours like substance abuse as a form of coping.

What are the Common Symptoms?

The symptoms of compassion fatigue may vary a bit from person to person, but in most cases you will experience a combination of these symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Short fuse/quick to anger
  • Feeling of tension and anxiety, like you can never quite relax even when you’re away from work or taking a break.
  • Apathy. Instead of feeling warm and empathetic toward those you care for, you suddenly feel cold or indifferent toward them.
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Exhaustion
  • Becoming ill more frequently and easily, as though your immune system has been weakened.
  • Work performance is suffering.
  • More accident-prone and clumsy.
  • Missing work more often.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Increased drinking or other substance abuse.
  • No longer able to experience joy or enjoy the things you normally do.

What are a Few Effective Ways to Cope with Compassion Fatigue?

While compassion fatigue can be quite scary and for some lead to feelings of depression, it’s important to keep in mind that with appropriate self care it is temporary. The main way to combat compassion fatigue is to take better care of yourself and make yourself a priority. You do such a great job of caring for others that you’ve let yourself get lost in the shuffle. Taking time for yourself each day to make healthy, nourishing meals, get enough sleep, and get exercise is a great way to get back on track. When you feel the tension building, go to a quiet room, listen to soothing music, and do some gentle yoga stretches and deep breathing to re-center yourself and calm your emotions.

It’s also important to take care of yourself psychologically. Seeing a mental health professional will help you process your stress, fear of losing a patient or loved one, and the traumas you have witnessed in emotionally healthy ways. Setting boundaries for yourself is also crucial. This may mean asking a sibling to take on more responsibility for your ageing parent, or asking your boss for a schedule modification if you work too many hours.

Remember that taking care of yourself in these ways is not selfish. In fact, doing so will help refill your well of empathy so you can be an even more effective caregiver. If you find yourself experiencing compassion fatigue, know that this completely normal and that you will get through it with proper self care. For more helpful tips for the aged care community, be sure to subscribe to our blog.

Have you experienced these feelings previously in your caring role, either personally or professionally? Please share with the community and open up conversation.

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