Caregiving: What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue

In caregiving we are used to hear and read about caregiver stress, caregiving fatigue or caregiver burnout; however the term compassion fatigue is not commonly mentioned yet it  holds the same importance and need of attention.  

Compassion fatigue was first discovered back in the 1950s on health workers such as nurses, doctors and first responders.  This condition has also been called secondary traumatic stress or STS, and it results in levels of compassion towards a patient decreasing over time.  The symptoms exposed by sufferers of STS are among the following:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Decreased experiences of pleasure
  • Ongoing stress and anxiety
  • Sleeplessness
  • Nightmares
  • Persuasive Negativity

All of the symptoms mentioned above trigger adverse professional and personal effects on the patient suffering from STS.  The person’s productivity levels will spiral down rapidly as they loose their capabilities to focus on tasks begin doubting themselves in everything they do and feel incompetent when caring for someone or overall.   

Throughout history, compassion fatigue has had many names.

  • Secondary Victimization
  • Secondary Traumatic Stress
  • Vicarious Traumatization
  • Secondary Survivor

There are several risk factors that can lead to compassion fatigue. This condition is more prone to happen on people who are perfectionists, extremely meticulous and give themselves into their job completely. Previous traumas are also a gateway opening up to STS. If the person tends to keep emotions to him or herself, they are at much higher risk of developing compassion fatigue.

In the case of caregivers, compassion fatigue is also an unfortunate reality. When a caregiver takes care of a dependent loved one, they can be subjected to abusive behavior. This scenario can lead to compassion fatigue, especially when the caregiver cannot deal with the fact that the condition their loved one is going through is not curable and will only get worse.  They may still want to care for the person but mainly out of routine or policy, but not because they feel it in their hearts they want to care for that person.   On the other hand, if a loved one is institutionalized in a home, or if you are caring for someone who has a terminal illness, you are at a much higher risk of suffering from compassion fatigue.

The road to healing begins with the one suffering from the condition by:

  • Loving and being kind to themselves
  • Education on the condition
  • Embracing life with all it throws at them
  • Never expecting help from anyone but knowing when to ask for it
  • Talking about their feelings
  • Listening to other people who are suffering
  • Setting boundaries and keeping them
  • Having a positive attitude towards everything