Compassion fatigue: Caring for the caregiver
If you have been a caregiver, whether professionally or in your personal life, for any length of time, you may experience compassion fatigue, or caregiver burnout.
This kind of burnout is a response to the chronic, daily stress and emotional strain of taking care of other people, particularly people who have problems that are not likely to change or improve. The caregiver starts to feel physically, emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually exhausted. The caregiver, who once was enthusiastic, with a positive attitude, may become negative toward others and their caregiving responsibilities. They may start to do the bare minimum and perform strictly “by the book.”
Fortunately, there are strategies for preventing burnout and overcoming compassion fatigue. To prevent burnout, try to have realistic expectations about the caregiving situation. Be aware of your own limits. Learn to be assertive, saying “no” and setting limits when necessary. Develop healthy stress and affect management strategies. Build a strong support system. Ensure that you have other areas of your life that re-energize you.
Sometimes, people find themselves in caregiving situations that could not be anticipated. For example, a loved one has an accident or develops an illness that requires a lot of care. Or, if you are in a caregiving profession, the job expectations may become more demanding. To recover from burnout, you may have to make difficult changes in your life, even though you already are exhausted. You may need to remind yourself that the time and energy invested in making changes are intended to have enough pay-off to help you overcome the fatigue.
Some other strategies for overcoming compassion fatigue:
- Apply your caregiving skills to yourself.
- Develop a healthy lifestyle. Get enough sleep. Eat healthily and regularly. Get some exercise. Connect socially. Get your spiritual needs met.
- Use basic stress management techniques (relaxation, meditation, recreation).
- Learn strategies to work smarter, not harder. People perform more efficiently when they take occasional breaks than when they do not. Take breaks, even short ones.
- Try to protect some of your time from the demands of caregiving. Leave work at work. Let someone else do the caregiving while you re-energize. Engage in some enjoyable activities.
- Find healthy social support (friends, co-workers, support groups, therapists, pastors). Find someone who will focus on you.
- Ask for help.
- Let others help when help is offered.
About the Author
Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Advocate Medical Group – Behavioral Health in Normal, Ill. She has helped her clients through a variety of issues for more than 20 years.