By their very nature, compassionate individuals may forge close connections and be a go-to for loved ones in times of need. However, this tendency toward empathy and nurture may also carry an unexpected side effect: compassion fatigue.
Understanding compassion fatigue
According to expert Jennifer Middleton, compassion fatigue occurs when secondary traumatic stress meets cumulative burnout. Of course, that’s a very clinical-sounding sentence, and when your mind is fatigued and swirling with tasks and responsibilities, it can be difficult to make sense of complicated ideas. As it turns out, that’s a great metaphor for compassion fatigue. To put it simply, a combination of exposure to someone else’s trauma (secondary traumatic stress) and prolonged exposure to stressors (burnout) can cause compassion fatigue. While caring for a loved one who is unwell, in pain, or experiencing trauma, these two things may be part of every day.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue
- Anger and irritability
- Inability to feel sympathy and empathy
- Reduced enjoyment and/or satisfaction from work and life activities
- Difficulty making decisions or being productive
- Mood swings
- Negative thoughts
- Physical symptoms: exhaustion, fatigue, changes in appetite, digestive issues, headaches
Over time, the effects of compassion fatigue can contribute to the development of other conditions. This includes depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If these conditions are pre-existing, they can be worsened by compassion fatigue – and vice versa.
Ways to minimise the impact of compassion fatigue
If you suspect that compassion fatigue is setting in, there are things you can do to minimise its impact. Without further ado, here are three strategies to help you manage your compassion fatigue:
1. Reframe negative thoughts
Increased negative thinking patterns are a flashing warning sign that something is wrong. These can worsen many of the symptoms of compassion fatigue, such as anger, reduced satisfaction, and problems with motivation.
Negative thoughts can be distracting and stressful. However, you can catch and reframe them by borrowing some basic principles from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). If you’ve never heard of CBT, here’s a great resource with the basic facts. To summarise, CBT is a form of psychotherapy built around the idea that our thoughts affect our feelings. It aims to help individuals recognise thinking patterns that are unhelpful and harmful.
Here are some examples of negative thoughts about the self, and to the right are examples of how these can be reframed to be more forgiving and positive:
|Negative thoughts||Reframed thought|
|I forgot to complete this task, I am a mess||I am only human|
|X could go wrong||Y could go right|
|If I don’t do a perfect job, then I am a failure||Perfection is unrealistic, giving my all is what matters most|
|I can’t do this||I will try my best, and that’s all I can do|
Like most things in life, changing negative thought patterns takes time and consistency. By working on continuously identifying and reframing these thoughts, you can start to reverse their effects.
We know that self-care is easier said than done as a carer, but it’s so important for mitigating the impacts of compassion fatigue. Here are some simple ways to fit some self-care into your schedule:
- Spend some time in nature. Instead of scrolling social media or catching up on emails on the couch, go for a walk in a park, along a beach, or even down a street with some natural foliage. We’ve previously covered the connections between nature exposure and mental wellness and if, like many of us, you struggle to get outside in the Winter, we put together some tips to help.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor. Not only can they support you with the physical symptoms, they can also refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist with the right expertise to help. In Australia, you may receive a mental health care plan, which provides access to heavily subsidised psychological services.
- Establish a routine around your responsibilities. As much as you can, prioritise getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and enjoying social activities. Bonus points if you can involve nature exposure in some of these!
- Practice gratitude and positive affirmations. This can help with negative thoughts as well.
Of course, practicing self-care often means creating time in an otherwise packed schedule (point #3 below might give you some ideas for achieving this).
3. Getting help from service providers
If you might benefit from sharing the workload, consider helping your loved one apply to access the NDIS or My Aged Care if they haven’t already. Access to these schemes is usually dependent on the applicant’s age and/or diagnosis/diagnoses, but you can find out more on the relevant websites that are linked earlier in this paragraph.
We can’t speak too much about My Aged Care, but we know a lot about the NDIS, and we know how helpful it can be. If eligible, your loved one (and their existing support network) will have some input into their supports and, as such, may be provided with funding to access support work and therapeutic supports. They may even receive funding for a Support Coordinator or a Psychosocial Recovery Coach to help manage and implement their NDIS plan. Accessing the NDIS often takes a lot of pressure off carers, freeing up time for self-care and other responsibilities. It’s important to note that you can still be as hands-on as you like in the support of your loved one while receiving supports from the NDIS.
On the other hand, if your loved one is an NDIS participant and you are still experiencing compassion fatigue, it might mean their plan is not providing enough support. If this is the case, you can apply for a plan review. If a Support Coordinator or a Psychosocial Recovery Coach is a part of your loved one’s support network, you can ask for support to complete a change in circumstances request.
However, if there is no Support Coordinator or Psychosocial Recovery Coach involved, your loved one may benefit from adding one to their support network. In the meantime, you can reach out to the Local Area Coordinator nominated within the NDIS plan to support the change of circumstances request.
Understand that you are human
We are all human, and stress is part of life’s ebb and flow. Developing compassion fatigue does not mean you are weak or incapable, but it’s important to admit when it’s starting to affect your life before it becomes harmful to your wellbeing. We hope that our tips help you navigate compassion fatigue. Remember to celebrate your wins, get on top of negative thoughts, look after yourself, and seek help from others.
At Enhanced Lifestyles, we offer a range of NDIS services designed by people living with disability. Our Lifestyle Attendants can manage a range of supports for your loved one, including personal care and community participation. Plus, our Support Coordinators and Psychosocial Recovery Coaches can help implement supports that fit unique needs. Click here to contact our friendly team to discuss our services.