Compassion fatigue can negatively impact your caregiving abilities, increasing the chances you will “burnout.” Compassion fatigue1 happens when a caregiver is unable to detach themselves from the current situation; this can cause added stress which manifests and can turn into feelings of anger, depression or perceive oneself as inadequate. It’s important to understand that while caregiver burnout tends to develop over time, symptoms of compassion fatigue often develop more quickly.
Long-term caregivers who are responsible for caring for a loved one with dementia are especially at risk for compassion fatigue. Over time, caregivers may begin experiencing negative feelings. Isolation and difficulty of feeling empathetic are commonly the first signs of compassion fatigue. The combination of continually being exposed to stress, juggling multiple demands with family, balancing one’s work and personal life, and observing a loved one’s decline can make it increasingly difficult for caregivers to feel compassionate toward their loved one.
Compassion fatigue contributes to burnout
Some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
- Intense guilt
- Sleep problems
- Overwhelming sadness
- A feeling that caregiving has taken over one’s life
- Inability to detach from the caregiving situation
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Physical exhaustion
- Feeling traumatized
Many of these symptoms are similar to those of caregiver burnout and can contribute to it, making it worse:
- Reduced energy
- Lack of appetite
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Lack of interest in hobbies or socializing
Caregiver burnout has two sides
Compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout stem from the same pressures and stresses of caregiving. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care Nursing2 describes burnout as having two sides. Researchers believe that burnout is actually a relationship between the negative and positive aspects of caregiving encompassing three specific areas:
- Exhaustion and energy. Exhaustion causes caregivers to distance themselves emotionally and cognitively from the work at hand. However, they remain involved and get energized from delivering care. While they may feel exhausted there are certain aspects of the work that creates self-fulfillment.
- Cynicism and involvement. Cynicism causes caregivers to depersonalize the work in order to put some distance between themselves and the emotional stresses of the work. At the same time, they remain involved in delivering daily care. They may feel detached and cynical about their ability to make a difference, but their commitment to the work keeps them returning to it each day.
- Inefficacy and efficacy. Feeling ineffective causes caregivers to feel exhausted and become disconnected with their work. However, from time to time they still feel as though it matters. Despite the frustration of juggling their home and professional life with caregiving, small satisfactions can give them a sense of accomplishment.
These negative and positive emotions feed burnout. They exhaust the caregiver and result in high levels of stress. Compassion fatigue exacerbates these symptoms and can result in a “perfect storm” of devastating emotional, physical and mental symptoms.
These are serious conditions that need to be addressed with self-care because left untreated, they can seriously and permanently impede the caregiver’s ability to fulfill his or her responsibilities.
Preventing compassion fatigue and burnout
You can prevent high levels of stress that threaten your well-being by following these tips:
Take care of yourself. See your doctor regularly. Eat a nutritious diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and drink at least six glasses of water a day. Get exercise and fresh air. All of these activities will provide fresh oxygen to your body and mind and reduce stress.
Practice deep breathing. Deep breathing is an effective stress reduction technique that can be practiced anywhere. It can be done while standing at the kitchen sink or sitting in your car. Taking a deep breath through the nose, breathing in until you can feel the bottom of your lungs and then letting it out slowly. Repeat the exercise ten times. and you may find that it helps to reduce stress and anxiety.
Find support. Talk to friends and/or family members regularly. Find a local support group to join. Some caregivers find that talking about their feelings can help to reduce stress. Hearing the experiences of other caregivers will help you to know you are not alone.
If you can follow these tips you may find it easier to take care for yourself. Ignoring your well-being can adversely impact your mental, physical and emotional health and that is something that you will want to avoid at all costs.