Coping with compassion fatigue

Cartoon elephant sitting on thin branch of withered tree in surreal landscape

Compassion fatigue is a term coined by Carla Joinson, a nurse who witnessed this phenomenon happening to herself and her fellow colleagues.

Whilst compassion fatigue is most commonly associated with professionals whose primary role is to care for people, it is also very relevant to informal caregivers who are caring for a loved one.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the stage of complete or extreme burnout following intense and long-term periods of caring for someone. It has been described as a ‘secondary trauma’, with the caregiver taking on the traumas of the individual/s they are caring for.

This burnout often results in a lack of ability to feel any more compassion or empathy – almost like it has all been used up and there is nothing left to give!

What are the signs of compassion fatigue?

The signs of compassion fatigue can be distressing. People who are usually very empathetic and natural carers may experience the opposite – finding themselves to be ‘cold’ and distant, without the ability to sympathise.

The main signs that indicate you may be experiencing compassion fatigue are:

  • Exhaustion and feeling like you’re constantly working but getting nowhere
  • Feeling distant and disconnected from those around you
  • Feeling apathetic to the needs and traumas of your loved one/s
  • Having a short fuse, being irritable and quick to anger
  • Feeling stressed and anxious and being unable to relax properly
  • Decreased appetite, weight loss
  • Trouble sleeping, or getting proper rest
  • Difficulty concentrating and making mistakes
  • Increased periods of illness
  • More time off work due to sick days, or mental health days
  • Reliance on alcohol or other substances

What triggers compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue occurs when there is an accumulation of events in which you are coping with another’s trauma. It may help to think of it like this: you’ve been feeling compassion and empathy for so long, often taking on someone else’s trauma as your own, that you feel like you have nothing left to give; your compassion stores are empty! 

Compassion fatigue can be triggered by an increase in overall workload – you may have been caring for someone for a long time without any significant issues, but the addition of something else in other areas of your life may be the thing that triggers it.

10 tips on how to prevent compassion fatigue

Ensuring that you take care of yourself first, means that you can continue taking good care of others. Putting things in place to prevent burnout or compassion fatigue is important; for you and for those around you. Here are 10 things you should do to make sure you’re not at risk of compassion fatigue:

1. Schedule regular breaks

This sounds like it should be easy, but in reality, it doesn’t always feel possible to take breaks throughout your busy day. However, taking even two minutes several times a day to concentrate on clearing your mind can actually make a big difference. Tip: use your bathroom breaks as an opportunity to take some deep breaths and focus on releasing tension from your body. With each in-breath imagine bringing in light and energy and with each out-breath, imagine getting rid of any tension and stress.

2. Commit to an exercise routine

Finding time to exercise can be a challenge. If you are a morning person, try getting up half an hour before the rest of the house stirs, and take that time to complete your preferred exercise. Not a morning person? Try a simple yoga routine just before you go to bed. This might have the added benefit of helping you to relax and get some quality sleep.

3. Enlist the help of others, build a support network

Talk to other family members about sharing the caregiving activities. It could be as simple as asking someone else to attend a medical appointment with your loved one, giving you some time to yourself.

If family members are not suitable or available, look at finding a paid carer. Many Home Care services are funded by the government and Home Care Packages offer a lot of subsidised support. Have you applied for a Home Care Package for your loved one yet?

4. Don’t keep things to yourself, find people to talk to

Keeping things bottled up and to yourself generally isn’t the best thing, and can make you feel even more overwhelmed. Don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about talking to others about your experiences. If you’re not comfortable talking to your friends and family, there are many online carer forums and groups, where you can share and find support from people experiencing the same things you are.

5. Don’t skip meals; nourish yourself with good food

Skipping meals is easy to do when you’re busy and feeling stressed. Nutritious meals will help to fuel and energise your body and mind, so it’s worth taking the time to prepare good food for yourself. This could be something you do in advance – perhaps on a day where your loved one is being cared for by someone else.

6. Get proper sleep

We all know that when we don’t get quality sleep, many other things suffer. We get more irritable, lose concentration, are more susceptible to getting sick…the list goes on! Having a good sleep routine and knowing what works for you is key to ongoing quality sleep.

7. Find ways to relax

You’ll know better than anyone else what works well to relax you. Whether it’s yoga, meditation, soothing music, going for a run, or taking a hot bath. Whatever it is, try and incorporate little things into your daily routine.

8. Set boundaries

Many caregivers find themselves in a situation where they may feel like they are being taken advantage of and are perhaps doing things that are ‘over and above’ what they think is their role – these can be physical tasks as well as emotional commitments. Setting boundaries about what you will and won’t do could help. Enlisting the help of a paid carer, even if it is just for a couple of hours a week is an excellent way to set some boundaries. 

9. Speak to your employer about work schedules

Many employers are willing to be flexible with working hours. If you’re finding it hard to manage work along with caring for your loved one, speak to your employer about some scheduling tweaks that may help you to streamline your day.

10. Use respite care

Respite care is often government-subsidised and can be used in the home, in the community, or in an Aged Care Home. Respite care allows you to have some extended time to yourself, allowing you to regenerate and take the time to do whatever it is you love to do. 

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