Caregivers at Risk of Developing Compassion Fatigue
I had never heard of this term until last week when I attended an Alzheimer’s Association workshop. However, once I heard the term (which is also called secondary traumatic stress disorder or vicarious traumatization) described, I totally understood this challenge for caregivers and realized that it actually has emerged in my own life over the last decade during which I've been a caregiver.
Compassion fatigue is when negative attitudes gradually prevail instead of compassion in caregivers due to the stress of caregiving. This stress is caused by the emotional challenges of watching a loved one deteriorate physically, no matter what you do. “This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of society's flagrant disregard for the safety and well-being of the feeble and frail, takes its toll on everyone from full time employees to part time volunteers,” the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project website states.
The symptoms of compassion fatigue often match those of chronic stress and can include:
- Poor self-care
- Social isolation
- Bottling up emotions
- Substance abuse to mask feelings
- Excessive blaming
- Complaints about administrative functions
- Compulsive behaviors (overeating, gambling, sexual addiction, overspending)
- Legal issues and indebtedness
- Chronic physical ailments
- No longer finding activities pleasurable
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling mentally and physically tired
- Being in denial
Compassion fatigue is different from burnout, but it can co-exist with burnout. The stages of burnout have been identified by researchers as enthusiasm, stagnation, frustration and apathy. Compassion fatigue emerges more rapidly while burnout tends to show up over time. Furthermore, a person with compassion fatigue can have a faster recovery if the situation is recognized and managed early.
Obviously, compassion fatigue can hit paid caregivers in places such as nursing homes, assisted living centers, hospitals and hospices. The symptoms within an organization include:
- High staff absenteeism.
- Inability to work well together in teams.
- Desire to break company rules.
- Outbreaks of aggressive behaviors.
- Inability to complete assignments and tasks.
- Inability to meet deadlines.
- Lack of flexibility.
- Negativity toward management.
- Being very reluctant to change.
- Lack of vision for the future.
Many people cope with compassion fatigue through ignoring overwhelming emotions that emerge while caregiving. However, eventually these emotions take over, leading to psychological and physical crisis. Several tests are available to determine if you may be suffering from compassion fatigue or life stress. If you’re currently in a caregiving situation, I’d encourage you to take one or all of these tests to determine if you’re at risk.
So how can you manage compassion fatigue? Here are some suggestions:
- Focus on providing yourself with excellent self-care, including eating a healthy diet, drinking lots of water, exercising, getting a massage and doing meditation.
- Set your personal boundaries about what you’re willing (and not willing) to do. Be sure to maintain these boundaries.
- Learn to say no when asked to do something that either crosses your personal boundaries or is something you don’t want to do.
- Be kind to yourself instead of being critical, especially when you engage in self-talk.
- Reserve your energy for causes (and battles) that you consider truly worthy.
- Seek out education to enhance your awareness.
- Add activities in your schedule that you enjoy and that provide a diversion.
- Take mini-escapes to relieve the intensity of your caregiving work.
- Focus on the positive impact of your work (such as meaning and gratitude).
- Seek medical treatment when necessary to relieve symptoms.
- Be willing to seek professional help, such as a therapist, clergyman or life coach, when necessary.
- Build a positive support system of people who do not add to your stress levels. However, realize that people closest to you may not be available when you need them the most.
- Listen to others who are suffering.
- Take positive steps to change your environment.
- Pets are invulnerable to compassion fatigue and can help lower blood pressure and heart rate. Therefore, pet (or hug) your dog or cat often.
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
The American Institute of Stress. (2012). Compassion fatigue.
Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. (2013). Website.