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Caregiver Perspective: Compassion Fatigue

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

Caregiver burnout can occur over a long time and be characterized by symptoms such as:1

  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Withdrawing from activities you enjoy

Those are just a few possible symptoms. Burnout can occur 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, may come on after a shorter time frame of intense interaction of emotionally and physically draining care. It's something that sometimes happens with first responders. Symptoms can be similar to burnout and include:2

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  • Lack of enjoyment of things that used to be pleasant
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Less tolerant, easily annoyed
  • Blaming yourself for feeling like you haven't done enough

It’s very similar to burnout and may even signal the beginning of burnout. If it’s ignored and allowed to fester, burnout or resentment may occur. Family and friends of caregivers need to be alert to signs of compassion fatigue and offer support when they can.

Both of these conditions can 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 can become overwhelming.

Possible ways to manage fatigue and burnout

1. Learn to listen to your body

When you are overwhelmed, and someone asks you to do more, it's okay to say no. When you are sick, it can be good to 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 for 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 every 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

It can be good to 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, that can be beneficial.

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 sometimes 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 may be easier to tell a stranger the things you want to say than a friend when you’re depressed or angry. You know you won’t see a stranger 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. It's important to take care of yourself.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The 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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