People taking care of another person going through physical or emotional pain may experience compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue looks like exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed by obligations, becoming emotionally numb, feeling isolated and withdrawn, getting upset, and experiencing sleeplessness in the context of caregiving.
Compassion fatigue is commonly experienced by healthcare professionals, social workers, people working with the emergency response services, etc. who are constantly interacting with victims of trauma, disaster, illness. Teachers and mothers who spend most hours of the day taking care of children are also at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue. Besides these professions, it is also seen in common people who are caregivers of those with chronic mental illness or physical illness. If you are a helper, i.e. someone responsible for taking care of a person/people, you need to know about compassion fatigue.
Caregiving is a highly underestimated task. The amount of time and energy expensed by a caregiver for another person or many people will undoubtedly take away a major portion of the caregiver’s physical, mental, and emotional reservoir. Compassion fatigue is a result of that reservoir depleting. It is also explained as the negative cost of caring.
So, How Does Compassion Fatigue Happen?
Witnessing/watching/listening to another’s pain and suffering for the first few times can resonate strongly with anyone, invoking in them feelings of empathy and wanting to help. If you are constantly exposed to the pain and suffering most of the day, most days of the week, that feeling starts becoming commonplace. It may no longer invoke in you the same kind of fiery emotions as it did previously. When this goes on for months or years – the impact it has on you might dull.
As a result of this dulling, some people might begin to feel guilty about not being able to empathize anymore. That feeling of ‘wanting to help’ might also have faded which makes their work as a caregiver so much harder. Burnout is an element of compassion fatigue. So, physical and mental fatigue, insomnia, loss of pleasure, hopelessness, feeling powerless, and difficulty in concentrating adds on to what they are already experiencing.
Am I Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is not a disease, but rather a collection of symptoms. It can be reversed if identified and addressed. People experiencing compassion fatigue might find it hard to realise what is happening with them. Many a times, someone else might need to point this out for them. Nevertheless, here are a few signs of compassion fatigue.
1. You are a caregiver: either in your personal or professional life you constantly deal with taking care of another person’s physical or emotional pain.
2. You feel burdened by their suffering: Helping them feels like your responsibility and that feeling weighs down on you.
3. You have disturbed sleep and appetite: You have trouble finding sleep and have nightmares. You don’t feel hungry or you are eating too much.
4. You’re self-medicating in order to keep functioning: This includes anything from caffeine intake to pills or even alcohol and drugs. You feel the need to use substances in order to do whatever needs to get done.
5. Poor self-care: You feel too exhausted to take care of yourself that you find yourself skipping baths and not brushing your teeth or combing your hair, not being able to care about how you dress or appear.
6. Complaints at work place: People you interact with might bring to your attention that you seem different or off. Work might pile up. The quality of work you do might deteriorate due to fatigue and loss of interest.
How Therapy Helps You Take Care of Yourself While You Take
Care of Others?
The first thing that needs to be addressed is checking in with yourself and see how you’re doing. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and finding it difficult to function on a daily basis-that’s enough indicator that things are not okay and you could benefit from seeking help.
Step two is to gauge your support system. Are there family and friends who are concerned about you and can help you through this? Are there support groups you can enroll in? Even if you feel like you have nobody to lean on, you still have an option. Reach out to a mental health professional!
Once you’ve gathered all the support available to help you get through this, you need to establish some boundaries, which a mental health professional can help you with.
-In your list of things to take care of, you should come first. No buts. Because, anything else that follows on that list will be affected if you are not able to bring your A-game to the stage. Taking care of yourself, in a way, is taking care of others.
-There are some things that cannot be taken care of with regard to caregiving. You cannot fight somebody else’s battle. You can help equip them for the fight. But you cannot fight their fight. At the end of the day, some things are just beyond your ability to change. Accepting that will clarify what you can actually do for them and give you peace.
-People can be difficult. Especially people who are suffering. Unfortunately, caregivers often become the punching-bags because they are accessible. It can feel like they are being ungrateful when they treat you that way. Knowing well that it is coming from someone who is hurt doesn’t make it okay or any less painful. It’s natural to feel anger or resentment towards someone who treats you that way. This is something a counsellor or therapist can help you understand and work through.
-Affirm yourself for doing what you can to make someone’s life easier. The fact that you are continuing to show up and do whatever you can despite how you are feeling is something that deserves to be rewarded. You deserve a pat on the back and a treat. Make sure you do that once in a while.
-Take breaks and indulge in other activities. Caregiving should not be occupying every minute of every day. You should make time for yourself to engage in other activities like meeting up with your friends, watching a movie, going out for dinner, self-care routines, whatever makes you happy! Set aside time for these things and don’t cancel out on these plans easily. Commit to them as seriously as you would if it were a work meeting. Because it matters more than you know.
Compassion fatigue is like a big, red, low-on-fuel sign that is going off inside a brain. You need to stop and refuel if you want to move forward. Compassion fatigue or not, you need to fuel up on the way. So, don’t forget to fuel up today!