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Caregiver Perspective: Compassion Fatigue

Last updated: April 2019

It seems ironic, but did you know that caring too much could actually harm you? There's a fancy name for it called "compassion fatigue." While compassion fatigue and burnout seem similar, they have significant differences.

Caregiver burnout occurs over a long time

  • Characterized by extreme exhaustion
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • Isolation from friends, family, all personal relationships
  • Increase in addictions (caffeine, food, alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.)
  • Increase in medical issues such as heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, stroke
  • Lowers immune response to illnesses
  • When the individual has had enough one day, they leave and never look back

Burnout usually occurs after years of pent up frustration and stuffing emotions and anger away, until the feelings burn out and no longer exist. The emotions and the desire to remain in the role go up in smoke; they “burn out.”

Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, comes on after a shorter time frame of intense interaction of emotionally and physically draining care.

  • Signs of apathy about doing a good job, decrease in quality of work
  • Missing time from work, coming in late
  • Inability to care for or nurture at work or home
  • Lack of enjoyment of things that used to be pleasant
  • Poor self-esteem, negative self-talk
  • Feelings of annoyance or anger
  • Disconnected from others
  • Less tolerant, easily annoyed
  • Less compassion
  • “No caring” left to give

It’s very similar to burnout and in many cases can signal the beginning of burnout. If it’s ignored and allowed to fester, burnout may occur and lead to a deep-seated resentment that takes as much as two years or more of therapy to overcome. In many ways, caregiver burnout parallels post-traumatic stress disorder in symptoms and treatment requirements; therefore, family and friends of caregivers need to be alert to signs of compassion fatigue and offer support at the first signs.

Both of these conditions occur because the caregiver has chosen to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of the one they love or support. Many times, they take on 24/7 responsibility and even if they are not physically providing care, they mentally remain connected.

The emotional strain of managing their own lives and the lives of that other person while also keeping a job and perhaps managing a household becomes overwhelming. The stress causes a release of chemicals in their system (stress hormones for fight/flight) continuously rather than on an "as needed" basis which is how the body works purposefully. The continuous flow of this hormone initiates many of the triggers in the body that lead to the declines noted under the burnout list above.

What to do

1. Learn to listen to your body

When you are tired. Rest. When you are overwhelmed, and someone asks you to do more, say no. When you are sick, see a doctor. Put yourself first sometimes.

2. Ask for help

You don't have to always do it alone. You may not be able to afford to pay help, and you may not qualify for assistance, but ask friends, your church, anyone you know to just hang out with the person for an hour or two to give you a break. You need time that you can get away ALONE for some you time now and then--to do what you want to do. You need some time that is not caregiver-related just for you.

3. Take care of yourself

Exercise and eat right. I'm not talking about going to the gym because that's probably impossible, but if you can get out and walk a little, even around the house, it would help loosen up your muscles. Also, try to drink plenty of water to flush out your toxins from your blood. You'll find that helps too.

4. Talk with someone

You don't have to have a therapist. They are great, and I think they are better than friends because friends tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. If you can’t afford a therapist, see if there is a support group nearby. It’s often easier to tell a stranger the things you want to say than a friend when you’re depressed or angry. You know a stranger won’t repeat your secrets and you won’t see them at the grocery store next week and wonder what they think about what you said.

Caregiving is hard work, and it takes a toll on everyone. Many caregivers die before the person they care for dies. It's important to take care of yourself, so that doesn't happen to you.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The MultipleSclerosis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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