By Melanie Trivette
Consider for a moment the number of caregivers in your life. You may first think about professionals: doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors, teachers or hospice workers. You may also see a friend, neighbor, or parent who provides emotional and/or physical support to a relative or person in the community. You yourself may be one, tending to a sick child or elderly parent. The role of a caregiver is not an easy one, yet compassion is a natural response to seeing others suffer. Often the stress of helping or wanting to help can become overwhelming, resulting in ‘compassion fatigue.’
Compassion fatigue is “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper (1).” Not to be confused with burnout, which encompasses general occupational stress, compassion fatigue can present symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to indirect exposure to traumatic events (2). These symptoms include, but are not limited to hopelessness, guilt, social withdrawal, and diminished self-care that can lead to negative habits or consequences for the caregiver.
Many caregivers experience compassion fatigue, and letting it persist can have detrimental and debilitating effects on one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual state. Recognizing early signs and symptoms is the first step in managing it. You may already know that you have compassion fatigue, or you may need help assessing your situation. There are online resources available to help you determine your risk, such as this self-test quiz from Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (CFAP). If you, or someone you know is experiencing or exhibiting signs of compassion fatigue, please consider talking to a licensed professional and trying some of our recommendations below.
One of the first steps toward healing from compassion fatigue is a renewed dedication to self-care. Identifying nurturing, joy-filled practices that help to ‘recharge your batteries,’ and incorporating them into your daily life can have a profound effect in minimizing symptoms of compassion fatigue. Such practices may include exercise, eating well, journaling, dancing, being in nature, meditation and achieving restful sleep. Consider getting an accountability buddy. Often it is easy to say we are going to incorporate self-care into our routine, but it can be the last item on the list, getting less attention than it deserves. Enlisting a friend or colleague as an accountability buddy can be a fun way to approach this new commitment to your well-being (2).
Connect With Others
Compassion fatigue can feel isolating, often presenting as social withdrawal. Seeking healthy relationships that provide the platform for connection and conversation can go a long way to reducing feelings of separateness. Talking about compassion fatigue with a licensed professional, co-worker, and/or support group are also great options. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue in your job, the chances are high that other people in your workplace and community are as well. Gather your resources, such as workplace bulletin boards or support group listings. Try this web site: CompassionFatigue.org
Respect Personal Boundaries
Defining healthy personal boundaries is an additional mechanism for managing compassion fatigue. Maintaining boundaries that promote a healthy work-life balance and checking in with those boundaries on a continual basis can be eye-opening and empowering. Those who do not help themselves first, are in no position to help others. See your personal boundary commitments as instrumental in supporting your role as a caregiver.
When you think about it, do you feel you know what real, healthy boundaries look like? Try these 10 tips from Psych Central to get you on track.
Self-regulation may be a concept that you promote to family members, clients, students, and/or patients, but perhaps it is lacking in your own life. Identify methods of self-regulation that suit your lifestyle, such as meditation, breathwork practice, or yoga (3). Incorporate these tools during times of high stress to foster relaxation and build resiliency. See our article on 5 Tips to Be Here Now for simple ways to practice calming yourself.
An important thing to know is that compassion fatigue is a normal experience for many caregivers. Mother Teresa is known to have made it mandatory that her nuns take a year off from their duties every 4-5 years to allow them to heal from the effects of caregiving (4). You can heal from it too. Organizations such as CFAP have made it their mission to help caregivers recognize and manage their symptoms. Included here is a list of resources for those seeking help and support with compassion fatigue:
- Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project © (CompassionFatigue.org)
- Help for the Helper – The Psychophysiology of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma (book) by Babette Rothschild
- Breath Of Relief: Transforming Compassion Fatigue Into Flow (book with DVD) by Karl LaRowe
This blog post was co-authored by Melanie Trivette, Anna Ferguson, and Becca Odom. For more information about the authors, click here.
Please note that these suggestions and tips are based on our opinions, and should not be considered medical advice. If you are seeking to treat a traumatic experience, please consult a licensed mental health professional before engaging in these tips. You can find a practitioner in your area at the National Association of Social Workers web site: www.helpstartshere.org
1. “Did You Know?” Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
2. “Secondary Traumatic Stress.” Secondary Traumatic Stress. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
3. Gentry, J. Eric. COMPASSION FATIGUE PREVENTION & RESILIENCY (n.d.): n. pag. Georgia Hospital Association. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.
4. Hopkins, Debra. “August 1934.” Burnout & Compassion Fatigue (2013): n. pag. My Viewpoint Health. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.