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Are You Suffering from Caregiver Compassion Fatigue without Even Knowing It?

Apr 21, 2021

Compassion fatigue is the opposite of the Mother Teresa Effect.Caregiver compassion fatigue is the flip side of another well-known occurrence: the Mother Teresa Effect. Recognized in the 1980s, the Mother Teresa Effect breaks down to this. When you do good for people around you – even people you don’t know – you feel better. Not only that, you actually, physically are better too. At least one study showed that people who went out of their way to help others boosted their immunity to colds and other infections

But even Mother Teresa knew that caring for others could go too far. She understood about compassion fatigue long before the term existed. (Coincidentally, compassion fatigue was also first defined in the 1980s.) Mother Teresa mandated that her nuns take a year off every four or five years in order to essentially heal themselves.

And it makes sense. How often do you say that you wish you could take some of their pain and suffering away and put it on yourself?

Here’s the thing though: in many ways, we actually do take on that pain. Compassion fatigue is also called vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress because the pain and suffering of a loved one can be a traumatic event for us too.

Not surprisingly, compassion fatigue was first recognized in the medical world: doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers. Soon, people recognized that first responders, police, and other social service workers can also suffer from compassion fatigue. Today, we’ve begun to realize that you and I can experience the traumatizing effects of caregiver compassion fatigue as well.

Is caregiver compassion fatigue happening to you?

The Difference Between Caregiver Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Caregiver compassion fatigue is different than burnout, though some experts say it includes burnout.Caregiver compassion fatigue, like compassion fatigue in all other people, has many of the same symptoms as burnout:

  • Physical, mental, and/or emotional exhaustion
  • Apathy and feelings of wanting to “just give up”
  • Pulling away from other people (anti-social behaviour because you’re not up to interacting with others)
  • Reduced sense of accomplishment
  • Reduces sense of work and personal satisfaction

In fact, some health experts believe that burnout is part of compassion fatigue (though you can also have burnout on its own).

The biggest difference between compassion fatigue and burnout is that compassion fatigue is triggered by one or more traumatic events. That means it can come on much more quickly than burnout, which tends to be a cumulative process.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), it’s important to protect yourself from caregiver compassion fatigue.  That’s because it can lead to other mental health conditions including a higher risk of substance use such as alcohol and drugs. Ultimately, caregiver compassion fatigue will also impact your ability to be a good caregiver.

Recognizing the Signs of Caregiver Compassion Fatigue

The first step is to recognize the signs of caregiver compassion fatigue.As mentioned above, burnout and caregiver compassion fatigue share similar symptoms; some symptoms we experience are exactly the same, but at a much higher degree. Here are some symptoms that tend to show more in caregiver compassion . You may experience one, all, or any combination of the following in varying degrees:

  • Not just feeling anti-social but feeling completely socially detached from other people
  • A quickly diminishing ability to handle stressful situations like you used to
  • Frequent (or frequent enough) nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping despite exhaustion
  • Physical symptoms including nausea, dizziness, and headaches
  • Increased use of alcohol, medications, and other substances (note: this may include, but doesn’t have to include, addiction – the idea is to get yourself under control before an addiction forms)
  • Overwhelming anxiety, sadness, and/or loss of hope
  • Inability to listen to anyone’s stories anymore or simply not caring like you used to

I’d add one more sign of caregiver compassion fatigue, too. Often, friends will try to broach subjects like increased alcohol use or say things like, “You look tired...” without going into full-blown intervention mode. If this happens in your life, don’t dismiss them. Consider what they are saying, at least internally. Their third-person perspective can be a strong hint you may have caregiver compassion fatigue.

Understanding these symptoms is your first step. So, instead of dismissing that nightmare or watching yourself go from one glass of wine a week to two glasses per day, take a moment to recognize what might really be happening. The sooner you can identify caregiver compassion fatigue, the sooner you can start fixing it.

How to Fight Off Caregiver Compassion Fatigue

There are a number of ways you can fight off caregiver compassion fatigue. I’ve taken these three ideas from the CAMH site and expanded on them here:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Emotional Self Care
  3. Practical Self Care


Mindfulness can help ward off caregiver compassion fatigue.Some people are wary of this term. They may see it as a fad, a trendy self-help approach that will disappear next year. But I’ve found it useful, as have many of the people I’ve coached over the years. The great thing is that it is personal – you can make mindfulness whatever you want it to be. The bottom line in mindfulness with regards to caregiver compassion fatigue is that you are taking a moment to collect yourself and take a break from your stress.

  • Step outside of the situation. You know where you are right now in terms of stress. But you also remember a time before you had caregiver compassion fatigue. Being a caregiver to a sick parent or loved one is a part of your life at the moment, but it doesn’t define your life. I’m not trying to minimize the pain you and your loved one may be going through right now. But you can’t let the weight of that pain crush you (see below).
  • Indulge in things that make you happy. The little things like a fresh bouquet of flowers or having a piece of toast and a cup of tea for five minutes can make a big difference. Enjoy them in the moment. Literally take a break from what’s going on around you, just as you would if you were at work. Imagine yourself in Paris, if that helps.
  • Focus on what you have control over. It may be a trite saying, but it’s true: all you can do is your best. Recognize that what you are doing is making a difference, so keep looking at the positives of your actions.
  • Recognize that there are things you can’t control. This is the tough one. Pain and suffering are part of life, and there’s not much you can do to change that. Like I mentioned in the first point: you can’t let the weight of that pain crush you. Let go of the responsibility you’re feeling – for everyone’s sake.

Emotional Self-Care

Emotional self-care is closely tied to mindfulness. We naturally feel things like guilt, and too often we do take on too much of other people’s pain. None of us wants to see our loved ones go through what they may be going through. That’s the trauma part of caregiver compassion fatigue.

But it’s important to separate ourselves from those emotions. Not because we don’t care, but because sometimes becoming too empathetic makes us ineffective caregivers.

  • Set emotional boundaries. Only take on the things you can take on at any given moment. If you feel like you need to step away for your own mental health, it’s important to find a way to do that. Remember too that your emotional boundaries can change day to day or even hour to hour.
  • Balance compassion with taking on too much of someone else’s pain. Again, becoming too empathetic can trigger caregiver compassion fatigue and make us ineffective. Healthcare professionals learn early on not to get too close emotionally to their patients. (Or, at least, that’s the theory.) Again, it’s not because we don’t care. It’s because we need to keep perspective if we are going to continue to be a good caregiver.

Practical Self-Care

I talked about this in my last blog post about the MOVE Method. We might feel like taking time for ourselves is selfish. But in fact the opposite is true. We need to keep ourselves in good shape physically as well as emotionally so we can keep our energy and endurance up.

  • MOVE Your Body through regular – and planned – physical activities.
  • MOVE Your Brain by reading, doing puzzles, playing games, and other brain activities.
  • MOVE Your Food including eating fresh meals and avoiding fast foods and unhealthy snacks.
  • MOVE Your Spirit by going to services or engaging otherwise such as through spiritual podcasts.
  • MOVE Your Emotions through routines and other things that can bring your feelings into balance.

I go into greater depth in my Caregivers: Help Yourselves with the MOVE Method post.

One Other Great Way to Battle Caregiver Compassion Fatigue: Get Help

Getting help like in-home care can greatly reduce the risk of caregiver compassion fatigue, and can help if you already suffer from it.The bottom line when it comes to caregiver compassion fatigue is that you need to listen to your body. We can get so wrapped up in caring for our loved one that we don’t stop to think about ourselves. I’ll say it again: if you don’t help yourself before it’s too late, you’ll become ineffective as a caregiver. And that helps nobody.

One easy way to battle caregiver compassion fatigue is to get help. In-home care services can take a HUGE load off of you. And again, it’s a snowball effect. Getting someone to help at mealtimes or do some of the house chores or to simply come in for a couple of hours while you get some alone time can make a big difference to your life – and your mental wellness.

It’s the cornerstone of what I call Balanced Success. The goal is to keep all areas of your life in balance: your wellbeing, your social life, your work life, and every other area of life that is important to you. Balanced Success isn’t necessarily an innate ability. It’s a learned skill, and one I’ve been teaching people for years through my one-on-one coaching sessions and online courses.

Caregiver compassion fatigue can be a real challenge. But there are ways you can alleviate the stress in your life and avoid getting too overwhelmed. Contact me, Liz Comuzzi, for a free 15-minute consultation. Let’s review what’s going on in your life, and I can give you some quick tips on how to make your life easier. Not only will you become a better caregiver, you’ll become a better you.


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