If you’re a caregiver, actively caring for a loved one with serious health issues, the symptoms may sound all too familiar. You find yourself feeling exhausted all the time. Sometimes you feel irritable, even losing your sense of sympathy for the person you’re helping. You may have experienced physical symptoms such as headaches or weight loss. At times you dread the thought of another day as a caregiver – and that realization fills you with guilt. What kind of caregiver are you, anyway?
Compassion Fatigue is Extremely Common and Completely Normal
The answer will hopefully reassure you: you are a normal caregiver, and what you are experiencing is an extremely common condition typically called compassion fatigue. As this recent Washington Post article explains, professional caregivers aren’t the only ones at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue – other people just like you get it, too. “It can take hold in any person who cares for others who are in pain or suffering,” says Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. “Family/friend/relative caregivers are highly susceptible to compassion fatigue due to the intense, intimate and emotional care they provide.” It also might be important to know that the condition has a name: it’s called “secondary trauma stress,” and it’s not just in your imagination. It’s a real psychological condition, both measurable and treatable.
“Compassion fatigue is not psychobabble,” says the Washington Post article: “it’s a real diagnosis, also known as ‘secondary trauma stress.’” According to experts, “symptoms include isolation, physical ailments, bottled-up emotions, substance abuse, and recurring nightmares and flashbacks.” In researching this topic for the AgingOptions blog, we found this web page from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explaining more. The HHS site calls the condition “a natural but disruptive by-product” of working with people in especially difficult circumstances. It can afflict all sorts of people – doctors, counselors, first responders and so on – but it also impacts the lives of ordinary men and women caring for ill or inform loved ones. According to HHS, symptoms of compassion fatigue run the gamut from anxiety to sleep disturbances to a general sense of helplessness and isolation. Some caregivers can experience a loss of spiritual faith as they try to make sense of the “new normal” in their lives. HHS calls these feelings “alarming and personally overwhelming to anyone experiencing them.”
Compassion Fatigue: Too Many Family Members Suffer in Silence
The Washington Post article says that, even though many caregivers experience the physical and emotional pain of compassion fatigue, no one can really say how common it is. “It’s challenging to get an understanding of its prevalence, especially where personal caregivers are involved,” says the article. “Too often, symptoms aren’t even recognized, with family members suffering in silence.” It’s also true that individual caregivers have different capacities for emotional and physical strain, so predicting when someone is at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue is virtually impossible. As one expert put it, “Everyone is different when they ‘hit their wall.’ It happens when you least expect it.”
So, if you’re a caregiver and you feel you might be on the edge of compassion fatigue – or if you know someone else who fits that description – what can you do about it? For the answer, we turned to this article from a blog called GoodTherapy, originally published in 2016. It’s called “The Cost of Caring,” and it lists ten suggested ways for dealing with compassion fatigue. While some of these items apply more to professionals, we think this list can benefit even the unpaid caregivers who make up the backbone of home health care. GoodTherapy suggests you fight compassion fatigue through:
- Education: Learn the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue.
- Self-care: Eat well, exercise, and get plenty of sleep to keep up your reserves.
- Boundaries: As a caregiver, you have to know your limits – and you can’t do it all, no matter how much your family might be counting on you. Learn when to say no.
- Hobbies: Leisure time is a critical time to recharge your batteries and outside interests can help you do it.
- Friendships: Isolation is one symptom of compassion fatigue. Keeping friendships healthy and strong is essential.
- Journal: According to the GoodTherapy blog, keeping a journal helps you “cultivate self-awareness and connect with your personal thoughts” instead of suppressing your sense of anger, resentment or guilt.
- Resiliency: How quickly do you bounce back from adverse situations? That quality is called resiliency, and experts say you can actually learn and cultivate it. (For some ways to do this, check out this blog post about the topic.)
- Positive coping strategies: It should be obvious that deadening your compassion fatigue with alcohol or drugs is a path to personal destruction. Instead, practice meditation, watch a funny movie, hang out with friends, or take a walk in the park. You can even make a list of positive diversions and keep it handy for those difficult days.
- Personal strategies: Can you check out a caregiver support group? Can you get someone to come in and provide relief for half a day or longer? Don’t suffer in silence.
- Professional counseling: There’s no stigma in spending some time with a trained, professional counselor who can help you process your feelings and implement strategies to allow you to successfully combat compassion fatigue.
Reduce the Risk of Compassion Fatigue with a Coordinated Retirement Plan
Caregiving and the emotional and physical toll it can take is an important topic, and if you find yourself facing a choice about care of a loved one, we urge you not to make the decision alone. Contact us here at AgingOptions and let us refer you to a professional team of care coordinators who can walk this journey with you. In the same way, if you’re walking the journey of retirement planning, we can be your guide to help you make certain your retirement plan is truly complete. The right plan can prevent you from being forced against your will into institutional care and even keep you from becoming a burden to your loved ones, so they’re less likely to have to endure the extremes of compassion fatigue. That “right plan” is a LifePlan from AgingOptions. You can find out more about this breakthrough in retirement planning by joining Rajiv Nagaich at an upcoming LifePlanning Seminar – a free information-packed session that will open your eyes to the power of comprehensive planning for your retirement future.
There’s a LifePlanning Seminar coming soon to a location convenient for you. For a complete calendar and online registration, visit our Live Events page, or call our office. We’ll look forward to meeting you.
(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)