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?
Caregiver compassion fatigue, like compassion fatigue in all other people, has many of the same symptoms as burnout:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I go into greater depth in my Caregivers: Help Yourselves with the MOVE Method post.
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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