How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

Chances are you have heard the term “caregiver burnout,” which is defined as “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude — from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. Burnout can occur when caregivers don’t get the help they need, or if they try to do more than they are able — either physically or financially.” It arises when the task of supporting another becomes excessive and taxes the resources of the one offering, particularly when there is no end point in sight. Perhaps you are looking after a loved one with a physical or emotional illness that is chronic. You may have a partner, child, sibling or friend whose addictions have taken over their lives and yours. The word compassion is translated as “to suffer together,” and calls for alleviating pain. When we feel a connection to the one who is need of care and when we feel a desire to help and believe we have the freedom to choose how we do so, we are able to be more effective with them and simultaneously self- preserving. When we feel obligated to help and do it reluctantly or under duress, the probabilities increase that compassion fatigue will occur. Colleen Breen, LSW, the author of, Making Changes: A Guidebook for Managing Life’s Challenges, describes it as a kind of “soul sadness” that exists when people forget that they matter as much as the other person who counts on them for care.

What Is the Cost of Too Much Caring?

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion that rest doesn’t alleviate.
  • Isolation from family and friends.
  • Excessive anger and frustration.
  • Memory loss and confusion.
  • Stress-related illness.
  • Extreme worry about the future.
  • Uncharacteristic sadness or symptoms of depression.
  • Denying your own needs.
  • Feeling like a martyr.
  • Emotional numbness or a roller coaster ride of feelings.
  • Exacerbation of one’s own mental health symptoms.
  • A sense of hopelessness that anything will improve.
  • Turning to substances or increase in use of them in order to cope.
  • Ignoring one’s hygiene.
  • Lack of interest in formerly enjoyable activities and hobbies.
  • Denial that there is a problem with an “I can handle it” mindset.
  • Difficulty relinquishing control with an accompanying belief that you need to do it all yourself or that you are the only one capable of taking on the tasks.
  • Thoughts of self-harm or hurting the one for whom you are caring.
  • Unhealthy nutritional habits, binge or emotional eating.
  • Absenteeism from work.
  • Challenges in interpersonal relationships.
  • Decrease in intimacy with a partner.

Vicarious traumatization is a companion experience in which the person providing a listening ear and subsequent support adopts some of the same symptoms as the one in need, even if they themselves have never had the direct experience. Consider that it is like symbolic “secondhand smoke” that rubs off on the caregiver. He or she may have intrusive thoughts and dreams related to what they have heard. A professional and family caregiver found herself experiencing many of the aforementioned symptoms and often expressed feeling “all gived out.” What complicated the condition was an entrenched belief that her identity was wrapped up in that role. When she recognized that she was practicing “savior behavior,” she knew she needed to make dramatic changes and monitor her motivation on a daily basis.

What to Do When Your Compassion Meter Is Running a Quart Low

  • Recognize your human limits, which are not weaknesses.
  • Ask for help for yourself and the other person.
  • Set boundaries in all relationships, not only with the one calling for care.
  • Express your feelings in an honest and diplomatic way, rather than repressing and reacting.
  • Take a break from immediate tasks.
  • Spend time with nurturing people and engage in replenishing activities.
  • Write a list of resentments and then tear them up.
  • Speak with a trusted family member or friend.
  • Engage in physical activity to blow off steam.
  • Nap when needed.
  • Eat healthfully.
  • Immerse yourself in nature.
  • Take a bath.
  • Spend time with animals.
  • Know that you can be empathetic without “taking on” someone else’s physical or emotional pain.
  • Ask the person to do for themselves what they are capable of doing.
  • Allow for natural consequences of behaviors, rather than literally or figuratively bailing them out.
  • Break things down into manageable tasks.
  • Ask yourself your motivation for helping. Is it choice or obligation?
  • If you have a spiritual practice, turn to it for comfort and revitalization.
  • Work with a competent therapist if needed.
  • Attend support group meetings.

When in doubt, this portable prayer comes in handy as a remedy for compassion fatigue and reminds us of what we can and cannot control. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and (the) wisdom to know the difference.” — Reinhold Niebuhr By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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