It’s a phenomenon that can affect all caregivers – especially those taking care of family members or loved ones.
Have you ever felt so tired and despondent that you wished that your caregiving responsibilities would just go away!? And have you ever secretly wished in a moment of frustration that the one you are caring for would just die so that this torment could become over and done with?
You are not a heartless monster. In all likelihood you’re suffering from compassion fatigue.
Psychologist Dr Charles Figley of Tulane University in New Orleans describes the condition as “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper”. In short, it is the cost of caring for others, because caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without looking after their own emotional and physical wellbeing, destructive behaviours, such as withdrawal and substance abuse, can develop.
Researchers have discovered that caregivers who are overstressed by the nature begin to show symptoms that are similar to that of their clients, including difficulty in concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion and irritability. Tough home and personal circumstances combined with challenges in the working environment can all contribute to compassion fatigue. It’s a major reason why professional caregivers leave the field to look for other, less stressful work – This option is, however, not so easy for caregivers who look after family members.
How do you recognise compassion fatigue in yourself? The simple answer is that if you feel you could have it, you probably have it.
Symptoms to look out for include poor self-care (personal hygiene and appearance), repressed emotions, withdrawal from colleagues and friends, and compulsive behaviours such as overspending, overeating, gambling and even sexual addictions. People with compassion fatigue also tend to become apathetic and withdrawn, experiencing concentration problems, feelings of sadness and a lack of joie de vivre. They feel mentally and physically drained. They may experience nightmares and even get sick more frequently, typically with irritable bowel syndrome and related problems or colds.
In a formal environment, such as a self-help centre, problems can include absenteeism, high turnover rates, and friction between caregivers as well as between caregivers and management.
Is compassion fatigue just another name for “burnout”? While there are similarities, there also are significant differences. Compassion fatigue is an overwhelming emotional and physical drain that affects the way the sufferers view circumstances and how they react – it results in a changed world view and a loss of the ability to feel compassion. Burnout describes the physical and emotional exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless. It’s also not limited to people in caregiving environments.
So how do you handle compassion fatigue? Because it’s a process that develops over time, recovering from its effects will also take time. Mother Teresa understood it: in a plan that she outlined to her superiors, she said that it was mandatory for her nuns to take an entire year off from their duties every four to five years to allow them to heal from the effects of their caregiving work.
Tips for Managing Compassion Fatigue
- Find someone to talk to.
- Understand that the pain you feel is normal.
- Exercise and eat properly.
- Get enough sleep.
- Take some time off.
- Develop interests outside of caregiving.
- Blame others.
- Splurge on a new car, get a divorce or have an affair.
- Fall into the habit of complaining with your colleagues.
- Work harder and longer.
- Neglect your own needs and interests.
— Source: Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
Ida’s Corner is a regular column by George Louw, who qualified as a medical doctor, but, due to a progressing spastic paralysis, he chose a career in health administration. The column is named after Ida Hlongwa, who worked as caregiver for Ari Seirlis for 20 years. Her charm, smile, commitment, quality care and sacrifice set the bar incredibly high for the caregiving fraternity.