Recognizing and Combating Compassion Fatigue

By: Tawnya Caldwell, LMSW, CMC, CDP


Accidents Happen

In 2010, just two days after Thanksgiving, my husband had an accident while dirt biking with his son.  With little explanation for what had happened, he called me from the emergency room to tell me he was going to need me to come pick him up.  My husband had grossly underestimated his injuries. He suffered a compression fracture in his lower spine and was less than a millimeter away from severing his spinal cord and becoming paralyzed from the waist down.  He didn’t come home from the hospital for 10 days. When he finally came home he was sent by ambulance and set up on a hospital bed in my living room. Overnight I became a full-time caregiver and pseudo nurse, in addition to my usual duties as working mother.  I was responsible for his care 24 hours a day, seven days a week while he tried to remain lying as still as possible to recover. Nothing I’d ever done prior to this experience prepared me for the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll the caregiving role would take on me.  However, I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel when my husband would recover and life would return to normal. On February 2nd, 2011 my husband was able to get up from the bed and begin his physical rehabilitation which relieved me of much of my caregiving duties.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I now understand I was experiencing caregiver burnout and had I remained on the same course the burnout would have most likely progressed to compassion fatigue.  


What is Compassion Fatigue?

As helping professionals that work with individuals in crisis, first responders, police officers, social workers, nurses, and physicians, are regularly trained on the signs of burnout and taught how to manage daily work stresses with self-care techniques, such as meditation, regular exercise, and quality time spent with friends and family.  However, the repeated exposure to crisis and trauma can have an accumulating effect when not properly managed and can lead to an experience known as compassion fatigue. Unlike helping professionals, caregivers, who are just as likely to experience burnout and compassion fatigue, are often not provided any information or resources to help them manage their experiences and can lead to feelings of isolation.

Compassion fatigue is often referred to as secondary trauma because it often comes from the repeated exposure to another person’s traumatic experiences and creates high levels of stress on the helping person.  As stated earlier, compassion fatigue is a buildup, over time, of those caregiving experiences that leave someone feeling physically, emotionally and spiritually drained. Most often, when someone is experiencing burnout, a brief respite to recharge can alleviate the symptoms.  A weekly exercise class, dinner and a movie with friends, or even a walk around the neighborhood is often enough to combat burnout. Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, usually goes beyond those typical symptoms and leads to feelings of resentment, frustration, hopelessness, and loss of self-identity that is not easily remedied by brief respite.  Additionally, compassion fatigue can lead caregivers to experience a loss of empathy toward those in their care, which in the most extreme circumstances can lead to neglect or abuse.

Recognizing the Signs of Compassion Fatigue

  • Daydreaming about not having caregiving responsibilities any longer or finding ways to avoid caregiving duties
  • Decreased patience and tolerance – even toward those not in your care
  • Loss of empathy
  • Angry outbursts or other uncharacteristic behavior
  • Feelings of hopelessness and cynicism
  • Increased anxiety
  • Inability to make good decisions for yourself or your loved one


What to do about Compassion Fatigue?

If you are a caregiver, remember to take time out to care for yourself as often as you are able and learn the signs of burnout and fatigue before they become a problem.  Caregivers often take on too much individual responsibility for caring for their loved one, which can certainly increase the likelihood of experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue.  Enlisting the help of others, particularly professionals like the Care Managers and Advocates at LifeLinks can, not only help you manage the care of your loved one, but also help recognize and regulate the stresses of caregiving.

    The author and her husband at the LifeLinks Staff Christmas party this year.

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