Compassion Fatigue: Can You Care Too Much?

Mature woman and adult daughter sit close to each other with sad expressions on their faces. Younger woman is holding her mother's hand.Whether out of obligation or out of a caring heart, more than 65 million adults in the United States take care of an elderly, chronically ill, or disabled loved one. Most of these ailing adults want to continue living at home as they age and their health declines, rather than in an assisted living situation like a nursing home. Because resources are more abundant now for in-home care, “aging in place” has become more common.

If you’re a caregiver in this situation, chances are you’re prioritizing care of another person over your own needs. You might be losing sleep and feeling fatigued or distracted. It could be you find yourself losing your temper easily. There’s even a possibility you have lost friends or are facing new financial struggles because of your caregiver role. All of this might leave you experiencing overwhelm.

Is it possible to care too much?

The answer is yes. This “caring too much” can be described as “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue, a stress condition marked by a gradual decline in compassion and empathy toward others, often affects people in professional health care positions. But it can also happen at home when a well-intentioned caregiver overexerts in helping a person with a chronic illness or disability.

Compassion fatigue is different than burnout. When a caregiver is experiencing burnout, they have all but lost the ability to empathize or give care to others. Compassion fatigue happens when we help others who are in stressful situations, and burnout originates from occupational stress and being overworked.

Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Caregivers tend to experience compassion fatigue rather than burnout, although in severe cases, caregivers can experience burnout too. Some signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Apathy
  • Increased anxiety
  • Changes in sleep (too much or too little)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical ailments such as headaches, stomachaches, etc.
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Reducing or stopping pleasurable activities
  • Neglecting one’s own self-care
  • Lowered resistance to illness
  • Feeling impatient or irritable

Because people in caregiver situations often feel compelled to continue this role, they could be at risk for compassion fatigue. Learning to recognize and manage the signs and symptoms above effectively is imperative if you want to continue caregiving for your loved one. If ignored, these emotions and symptoms can intensify, and can eventually lead to more serious mental and physical issues.

5 Tips for Fighting Off Compassion Fatigue

If you believe you are at risk for compassion fatigue, it is not too late to stop the progression. Here are five tips for self-healing:

  1. Get enough sleep: You will likely have more energy and sharper thinking when your body is well-rested. This might mean engaging home health care services or a sitter to be with your loved one through the night while you rest. It may help you recharge and feel ready to take on a new day.
  2. Eat nutritious food: When we’re in a hurry, we tend to eat whatever is easy, and those choices aren’t typically wholesome. Unhealthy food (including drugs and alcohol) can leave us feeling sluggish and bloated, making it a challenge to be active and effective. Meal planning for the week can be a helpful way to stick to a healthier diet. Skipping alcohol and choosing water will likely help cleanse and rejuvenate your body.
  3. Get moving: While it may seem selfish to take time out of caregiving to exercise, the fact is exercise can boost your immune system, increase the “feel-good” chemicals in your brain to fight off depression, and relieve physical stress. Sparing even 20 minutes a day can be beneficial both physically and mentally.
  4. Enlist the help of others: Solo caregiving is asking for trouble. It is nearly impossible to care for another person 24/7 without aid. Asking a family member or close friend to take your place for a few hours, or enlisting home health care may give you some respite time to care for yourself. Your support system is crucial to your survival!
  5. Practice boundary-setting: Know when caregiving is too much and when you need to ask for help. Even if your loved one prefers your care to someone else’s, be aware of your limits and say no when needed. Express your own needs and concerns with others.

If you are on the downward spiral of compassion fatigue, seek the support of a licensed therapist and start caring for yourself, too. As American author and teacher in American Theravada Buddhism Jack Kornfield wrote, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

References:

  1. Signs of caregiver burnout and how to prevent it. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vitas.com/resources/caregiving/signs-of-caregiver-burnout
  2. What is compassion fatigue? (2013). Retrieved from http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/compassionfatigue.html

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea M. Risi, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Darla

    Darla

    March 3rd, 2017 at 7:45 AM

    I work with someone who would probably literally have the whole family fall apart if she stopped caring for them. She has a husband who doesn’t work but yet she is always having to do things for him, go places, make appointments, etc. She practically raises her two grandchildren as well as takes care of her kids and mother in law and dad. I don’t know how she manages to juggle all of it because quite frankly it would make me want to put some of that responsibility onto the shoulders of others instead of feeling like I had to carry all of it on my own.

  • Andrea Risi

    Andrea Risi

    March 8th, 2017 at 7:39 AM

    Thank you for sharing, Darla. Unfortunately many caregivers feel like they are in it alone. It isn’t always easy asking for help or delegating responsibilities, but not doing so can cause many more problems. I hope your friend finds the support she needs.

  • kristen e

    kristen e

    March 5th, 2017 at 7:44 AM

    You can become numb to the hurting of others when you can no longer feel the hurt that you have yourself. You get worn out and worn down when you can’t discover the time to take just a little time for you and to do the things that you enjoy doing.

    I think that there are those people who truly do thrive from helping others, but then at what price later on? I don’t think that they understand the amount of their lives that they are actually giving up, and by the time that they often do see this it is too late to do anything about it and get any of that time back and they instead become a little bitter about what they may have lost.

    There has to be some kind of balance for all of us, that balance that must be created to not only care for others but to not forget about ourselves as well.

  • Andrea Risi

    Andrea Risi

    March 8th, 2017 at 7:40 AM

    You’re exactly right, Kristen. Burnout occurs when we can no longer take care of others or ourselves. While I understand the need to care for loved ones, there has to be a balance between their needs and our own. It’s not being selfish to take care of ourselves first.

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