5 Ways to Fight Compassion Fatigue
Caring for a loved one day in and day out can become all-consuming. During those times when all thoughts and energy are dedicated toward someone else, it’s important to check ourselves for the warning signs of compassion fatigue.
Did you know that compassion fatigue is a type of secondary trauma? Even for those familiar with the term “compassion fatigue,” it’s difficult to prioritize self-care and address the symptoms early. It can feel wrong or self-indulgent to take a step back and ask ourselves what kind of care we might need when we feel the urgency of a loved one’s fragile condition.
We know that an increasing number of individuals and families in the United States are caring for loved ones with disabilities, chronic illness, and the mounting needs related to aging. There is a distinct lack of awareness of compassion fatigue among these hardworking family members, which makes them vulnerable to physical and emotional injury.
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
We might think of compassion as feelings of empathy; another’s hurts become our hurts. We will extend ourselves and make every effort to alleviate the pain in another person from a deep well of compassion. When we experience compassion fatigue, that well dries up.
It can happen suddenly: patience, warmth, and a seemingly never-ending source of energy just vanish. Instead of focused and committed, we feel defeated and hopeless. Despair gives way to indifference and irritability. We no longer have the will to care.
Compassion fatigue is common among those in the helping and caregiving professions. First studied in healthcare, it’s also been recognized among social workers, law enforcement officers, and others who come into continual contact with human suffering and need. These professionals receive training in how to deal with compassion fatigue, as it is an occupational hazard.
For family members caring for their loved ones, compassion fatigue is a lonelier experience. Few receive the education or support to recognize and remedy it.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
- Mental and/or physical exhaustion
- Resentment toward your loved one (often paired with avoidance)
- Feelings of cynicism, indifference, and bitterness that sometimes lead to outbursts
- Feelings of guilt and powerlessness
- Anxiety, feeling on edge, and difficulty making decisions or trusting yourself
- Self-isolation from others
- Physical aches and pains, gastrointestinal issues, and/or difficulty sleeping
Note that caregiver burnout is a separate phenomenon which builds slowly over time. Compassion fatigue can emerge suddenly and with surprising intensity, triggered by all kinds of events.
How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue
The first and most important step in fighting compassion fatigue is to acknowledge your own human limitations. It is not a flaw or defect to become tired, sad, lonely, or frustrated; it does not make you unloving or uncommitted to your loved one. The very fact that you are experiencing these feelings points to your efforts and your investment. Be mindful of negative self-talk, and give yourself credit for doing something extraordinarily difficult.
With self-compassion as the basis for actionable self-care, the following are some strategies you can use to prevent or mitigate compassion fatigue.
1. Use respite care.
Everyone needs a break—even you! Respite care should be part of every care plan, whether it entails a home health aide, an adult day care solution, or simply drawing on your network of friends and family. No one can or should try to care for their loved one full time. Respite care helps prevent overwhelm by providing time away for personal activities and pursuits. It’s also beneficial to the loved one in care, as they get a new person to talk to and a reprieve from everyday routines.
2. Make time for reflection.
To self-monitor for warning signs of compassion fatigue, it is essential to take even 10 minutes a day—every day—to check in with yourself. This can involve journaling, writing down your thoughts and feelings with no filter or judgment. You can also read through the checklist of compassion fatigue symptoms listed above, placing a numeric value on them (e.g., on a scale of 1-10, how exhausted do you feel today?). Do not rush through this reflection time, but use it to uncover valuable information about your state of mind.
3. Consider counseling.
If you find that the checklist exercise suggests that you are moving towards compassion fatigue, consider seeking professional help. This is especially important if you have a history of depression or anxiety. Do not miss warning signs that you need trained outside support.
4. Make time for joy.
When daily life is filled with difficult experiences, it’s important to balance them out with joyful ones. Collect ideas on what makes you happy—long walks, dancing, baking, chatting with certain friends, gardening, hot baths, yoga—and dedicate time every day to something on that list. Whether you have half an hour or a whole afternoon, use it for joy.
5. Lean on your network.
A surprising number of us understand the experience of caring for someone else. From new parents to spouses of cancer patients to children of Alzheimer’s patients, many people will at some point face the challenges of caring for a loved one. Share your experience with trusted friends and family members; lean on them for support and even advice. And don’t forget that your own experience can offer solidarity and hope to someone else. Consider joining support groups or online communities where you can hear and be heard.
A last thought: no one can give what they themselves do not have. Do not let your “gas tank” empty, but take time to fill up. It may feel selfish at first, but it is actually sensible and realistic to face your own limitations and needs. You must care for yourself first if you want to care for someone else.
VetAssist has helped thousands of veteran families access care and support. If your loved one needs home care, our VetAssist mission is to make home care easily and quickly accessible for those who qualify through the VA Pension with Aid and Attendance benefit. Veterans Home Care can help you determine whether you or your loved one will be eligible to receive the benefit, which can cover some or all of the cost of home care, and we make it easy to apply. Chat with us via our website, or call us at (888) 314-6075.
By Sylvia Trein, staff writer