When you think about illnesses, most people think about the person who is ill – not the one who is caring for them. But the life of a caregiver is important to consider, too. The role that they play in the life of their loved one is honorable, but puts them at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue, emotional exhaustion, burnout and even an illnesses of their own.
Compassion fatigue, also know as “caregiver stress” is the experience a caregiver has when their energy, emotions and mindset are depleted as a result of caring for another. It’s important to see it for what it is and whenever possible, address it early so it doesn’t lead to deeper feelings of burnout and exhaustion.
Before something difficult happens, let’s explore the symptoms of compassion fatigue and how to deal with it as a caregiver.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is also known as “burnout” and “secondary traumatic response.” Compassion fatigue occurs when people have a hard time making room for their own emotions and needs after spending so much of their energy caring for and supporting other people.
This is one of the many challenges experienced when supporting a loved one with a chronic illness over time. And it can impact a person’s ability to feel autonomous or like they have a “right” to their own wants and needs.
Developing compassion fatigue doesn’t happen overnight and it typically occurs when the caregiver is either burned out/exhausted/overwhelmed to begin with and/or those symptoms occur over time. That said, burnout and compassion fatigue often go hand-in-hand and it can be hard to understand which experience came first.
Signs of Compassion Fatigue
Emotional signs are feeling a deepening sense of resentment, emotional outbursts or an inability to control emotions when previously this was possible. It can also be a persistent sadness, feeling overwhelmed or even feeling guilty.
Those living with compassion fatigue also are likely to notice having symptoms of physical discomfort (i.e., sore throat, stomach pain, fatigue, aches and pains) due to the ongoing stress that your body endures caring for someone else. Physical exhaustion is common as is difficulty sleeping, appetite changes and weight fluctuations.
If you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, you may notice a difficulty balancing your personal life with other matters and begin to feel disconnected from yourself.
So what does this mean for me as a caregiver?
This means a lot for you as a caregiver, specifically, because you take on responsibility for the emotional and physical well-being of family members or others every day on top of the other necessities of keeping yourself going. That’s a lot of hard work, especially when you have limited support.
Data from Aging & Mental Health share that caregivers are at a 59% risk of experiencing signs of compassion fatigue. On top of that, 71% of caregivers report feeling caregiver burden and stress.
Knowing this information about compassion fatigue can help you proactively fill your own cup with support.
How Can I Address/Prevent Compassion Fatigue & Burnout?
Approach your day with your needs in mind, starting with the basics. Healthy eating habits, staying hydrated, scheduling your own medical appointments, exercise and developing a sleep routine are foundational components of self-care. Your time has understandably been focused on caring for your loved one, and that makes it harder to remember some of those things, but setting an intention to do these things daily can help combat compassion fatigue and burnout.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries is a vital step in coping with compassion fatigue. Whether you’re caring for a chronically ill spouse, parenting an ill child or looking after your parents, caring for a loved one can bring on feelings of anger and resentment when your own needs are not met.
Caregivers tend to give so much of themselves to meet other people’s needs, but it’s important for you to know that it’s okay to say “no” sometimes. Saying “no” to things that cause you more harm or could be done by someone else preserves your energy and keeps you from taking on too much, and decreasing stress levels.
This allows you to say “yes” to your own needs, helping you be a more effective caregiver over time.
Surround Yourself with Compassionate People
Life as a caregiver can feel lonely sometimes, especially when much of your time and effort is spent considering other people. You need other healthy people in your court. Who’s considering YOU right now? You need compassionate people to care for you as well.
Intentionally spending time with supportive people is a way for you to show yourself compassion as you grieve your loved one’s health condition. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you, ask how you’re doing and genuinely care about you. This could be family, friends and others in your community (i.e., clergy, mentors, spiritual leaders). Your loved ones can help take some things off of your plate, do meaningful things with you and give you a space to be yourself without feeling like a burden.
Caregiver Support Groups
Some of the best support can be through connecting with other caregivers through support groups. There is nothing like talking with other people who understand what it’s like balancing the care of a loved one, because you can be honest about the challenges you face and even get advice that has helped others through similar situations.
Speak with a Mental Health Professional
Caregivers are at more risk of developing chronic mental and physical conditions due to the high levels of stress and compassion fatigue they experience over time. But you can proactively work against that statistic by working with a mental health professional that specializes in helping families of those living with chronic illness.
The counselor can help you work through worries about your loved ones health, balance the tasks that come with being a caregiver, prioritize self-care and connect with resources to support your family. All of these supports can promote better health outcomes for you and lower intensity of compassion fatigue and burnout.
Focus On Meeting Your Needs
Once you’ve talked through your feelings and done some things you enjoy, there’s still the task of striking a balance between being a caregiver and meeting your own needs. This is where problem solving comes in.
Are there things that you need that have been placed on the back burner? Here’s an initial way to change that.
Make a list of things that YOU need for YOURSELF today, and make a plan to meet them. Give yourself permission to seek help to get certain things done so that you feel more balanced during the day. Tasks to consider are groceries, yard work, meal preparation, scheduling your own medical appointments, and even participating in activities of luxury (i.e., massages, visits with the hairdresser, attending a concert, taking your pet to the groomer, or planning your vacation).
Now let’s take it a step further, find ways to incorporate some of these activities and tasks into your weekly routine so that you are able to connect with yourself and fill your cup as you go. It’s important that you consistently meet your own needs to help avoid compassion fatigue. So take the time to make those phone calls, ask for help when needed and focus on yourself.
You’ll be a better, healthier caregiver as a result of it.
Do Things that Give You Hope
You have a lot on your plate as a caregiver, and it becomes harder to carry sometimes when you see your loved one not getting any better over time. It’s challenging when you miss days when things were different. But when you’ve been a caregiver for a long time, the road can seem long and dark without something to give you hope on the hard days.
Hope is linked to better mental and physical health outcomes over time. It’s not necessarily hope that your loved one’s health will improve (because sometimes that’s not realistic). However, it’s a state of being optimistic, intentionally hoping for good things for you and others when moments are hard (i.e., peace, joy, connection, support, meeting personal goals).
What gives you hope to keep going?
What helps connect you to a greater purpose in your life?
These are the things to tap into daily to help strengthen your mind and keep you in calm spirits even when you’re exhausted and experiencing caregiver burnout.
Some ideas for finding hope are volunteering, spending time in nature, participating in faith-based activities and groups, reading inspirational books, traveling, gratitude journaling and meditation.
Next Steps for Caregiver Support
I help individuals, families and groups who are navigating life with chronic illnesses for themselves and their loved ones. Therapy is a powerful tool that can help you find meaning in your life while making sense of all the complicated feelings that come with your loved one’s health condition. Although the journey as a caregiver is hard, therapy can make it more bearable by providing skills and a supportive place to turn on the harder days.
You can schedule your first appointment with me by booking a free 15-minute consultation.