Caregiving and Compassion Fatigue

Last month we addressed the prevalence of Compassion Fatigue in the lives of Caregivers, both paid and un-paid. As we discussed, Compassion Fatigue is a form of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder and is a cousin of PTSD; the symptoms and their effects are nearly identical. Compassion Fatigue is the result of the long-term stress of helping others in crisis – for Caregivers in a professional setting looking after their charges, and for unpaid Caregivers tending to a family member, either in a crisis situation or long-term life transition.

Generally, unpaid Caregivers fall into the role by necessity rather than choice, and often in the case of an emergency. Therefore it is imperative for them to be aware of the dangers of Compassion Fatigue, as it may come on suddenly or without warning, and they are too distracted coping with emergent situations  to recognize it.

Compassion Fatigue is often labeled as simple “burnout,” but it is more pervasive, less predictable and, as previously mentioned, takes hold before one knows it. According to Dennis Portnoy, MFT, “In addition to regular burnout symptoms, a Caregiving and Compassion Fatigue person experiencing compassion fatigue can feel a loss of meaning and hope and can have reactions…such as strong feelings of anxiety, difficulty concentrating, being jumpy or easily startled, irritability, difficulty sleeping, excessive emotional numbing.” Compassion Fatigue manifests as depressive and disruptive symptoms,
affecting mental and physical health. This is more than mere exhaustion and can be crippling.

As we know, half the solution to a problem is acknowledging that it exists. It’s common and understandable to ignore the sense of overwhelm and stuff these negative emotions, but realizing that you are a candidate for compassion fatigue, or already suffering its effects, is the first step in the healing process. With this new awareness you can begin to see patterns and understand past traumas and defeating behaviors that are at the root of Compassion Fatigue. Remember, people who suffer from this syndrome are predisposed to it due to a learned behavior called “other- directed care giving;” they put the needs of others before their own
and don’t know how to practice self-care.

Begin your own sustainable self-care regimen today. Start with these simple steps:

  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Enhance your awareness with education.
  • Practice health-building activities such as exercise, massage, yoga, meditation.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Use natural healing products to care for and heal your body.
  • Practice the art of self-management.
  • Just say no!
  • Develop a healthy support system: people who contribute to your self esteem, people who listen well, people who care.
  • Organize your life so you become proactive as opposed to reactive.
  • Reserve your life energy for worthy causes. Choose your battles!
  • Live a balanced life: Sing, dance, sit with silence.
  • Take positive action to change your environment.
  • Accept where you are on your path at all times.
  • Understand that those close to you may not be there when you need them most.
  • Exchange information and feelings with people who can validate you.
  • Listen to others who are suffering and learn from their experiences.
  • Clarify your personal boundaries. What works for you? What doesn’t?
  • Express your needs verbally.
  • And don’t forget to congratulate yourself for moving forward and affecting positive change in your life!

As time goes on and you continue to do the necessary internal work, you will begin to understand the complexity of the emotions you’ve been juggling and, most likely, suppressing. With support, insightful information, and authentic self care you can break the old patterns that never served you and put new behaviors in place. Your life will begin to change for the better – and you’ll be a better Caregiver for it!

If you are  interested in learning more about coaching and how it can support you as a Caregiver, or want to book an introductory session, please contact Gretchen Cole at