Compassion Fatigue: Caring too Much

Any senior care professional is vulnerable to Compassion Fatigue.  For example, nurses, doctors, counselors, veterinarians, therapists, social workers, chaplains, emergency response workers, and people caring for aging parents. So, what is Compassion Fatigue?

Dr. Charles Figley, describes Compassion Fatigue as, “ a state experienced by those helping people in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is traumatizing for the helper.”  Furthermore,  “The capacity for compassion and empathy seems to be at the core of our ability to do the work and at the core of our ability to be wounded by the work”.  Compassion fatigue results from the cumulative impact of taking care of people living with serious illness, trauma, abuse, or severe conditions.”  It’s different than job burnout, which is dissatisfaction with our job situation, not the work itself.

But how do you recognize compassionate fatigue?  The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project tells us characteristics include:

  • Withdrawing from others
  • Difficulty connecting – detaching
  • Feeling angry that other caregivers don’t understand the nature of your service
  • Life feels too serious
  • Turning to compulsive or addictive behaviors such as overeating, overspending, alcohol, smoking, etc.
  • Physical symptoms: headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, muscle tension.
  • Fatigue and apathy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoiding work. Calling in sick or postponing appointments
  • Thinking that this work isn’t for you (when you know in your heart you really love it)

So, how can we avoid Compassion Fatigue? The answer lies in self-care, typically physical support like regular exercise, getting enough sleep and good nutrition. However we shouldn’t stop there. Nancy Jo Bush, an oncology nurse, says that self-care also includes setting empathetic boundaries; self awareness and self forgiveness; being in tune with one’s spirituality and finding hope. Experts agree that reaching out to others and developing a support system is critical.

A friend working in hospice shared a bit of wisdom. Lighten up and don’t forget to laugh. That reminds me of an old Joni Mitchell lyric, “Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.” Thanks, Joni. We’ll all try to remember that!

In conclusion, who would you turn to if you needed the support of an understanding friend?

Ann Catlin, OTR, LMT is a recognized expert in the field of skilled touch in eldercare and hospice. She guides professionals in discovering Compassionate Touch in person centered dementia care. She is a team member of AGE-u-cate Training Institute.

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