Recently, I was interviewed by Carol Bradley Bursack, founder of Minding Our Elders, for an article she was writing about compassion fatigue. During this interview, she asked me to define compassion fatigue and identify some of the warning signs family caregivers can look out for as they are providing care to a loved one. Below is information I provided her with along with proactive steps caregivers can take to try to prevent compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is an extreme state of great tension and stress that can result in feelings of hopelessness, indifference, pessimism and overall disinterest in other people's issues.
With regard to caregivers, compassion fatigue can manifest itself through actions like yelling, hitting, neglecting a loved one, etc. Basically, any action that is not characteristic of a caregiver's typical behavior but is now present and consistent. While some may simplify and attribute this change in behavior to frustration and/or resentment, it is important to understand that compassion fatigue is not something that occurs overnight. It is the result of days, weeks, months and years of managing caregiving responsibilities that are often unrecognized, emotionally demanding, physically exhausting and seem endless. As a result, it is not uncommon for feelings of frustration, resentment, hopelessness, guilt and/or a diminished sense of self to manifest.
Being proactive is one of the best ways to combat compassion fatigue or at least prevent it from getting out of hand. First and foremost, be aware of the warning signs:
Being aware of the changes in your behavior is the first step. The next step is to begin making yourself a priority and tend to, at the very least, some of your needs. While many caregivers feel this is impossible to do, it is important to understand that if you don't make time for yourself, no one else will. Start by allocating, at minimum, five minutes in your day to eat, pray, dance, laugh, walk, sing, read an inspirational quote, meditate, chat with a friend, the list can go on and on. My point is to give yourself a mental and physical break from actively caring for a loved one. The ability to do so in small bursts can allow you to begin the practice of caring for yourself and hopefully get you to do more of it in the future.
Having a non-judgmental outlet to express your thoughts can also prevent compassion fatigue. Outlets like a personal journal, talking with a confidant, or seeking advice from a healthcare professional can help you with processing your feelings and offer a safe place to release your pent up feelings.
If you find yourself already experiencing compassion fatigue, then let others know and seek professional help. Believing it will subside, especially while you are still actively caring for a loved one, can cause some individuals to become depressed, develop panic attacks and/or potentially put their loved one in harm's way.
Do you have any questions about preventing compassion fatigue or how to better care for yourself? Feel free to ask them below.
Christine M. Valentin
As a licensed clinical social worker, I help individuals caring for a loved one reduce feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. This blog is meant to share with you, many of the suggestions I recommend to many family caregivers. Sign up to receive them directly.