Helping others who are dealing with trauma can take a toll on caregivers. Over time, the stress of helping others can cause symptoms like anxiety, sleeplessness and irritability that interfere with everyday life. This response is often referred to as "compassion fatigue."
Left untreated, compassion fatigue can lead to burnout and other conditions that may not go away on their own. If you work with victims of trauma, you can take steps to recognize, limit and treat these effects. Not everyone who helps others dealing with trauma develops compassion fatigue, and signs of stress don't necessarily point to compassion fatigue. They may simply be signals that you are tired or need a break.
Signs of compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue can happen slowly over time, or it can come on suddenly. The signs are similar to the signs of post-traumatic stress but can vary greatly among individuals:
- Nervousness and anxiety - You may feel fearful about going out or be hyper-vigilant about your own and your family's safety.
- Anger and irritability - You may find yourself arguing with relatives, friends or co-workers or feeling angry with specific people or groups.
- Mood swings - Having compassion fatigue can make it difficult for you to control your emotions. You may feel fine one minute and find yourself suddenly crying or feeling anxious the next.
- Difficulty concentrating - Having trouble maintaining focus or difficulty making simple decisions may be signs of compassion fatigue. You may forget parts of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth or weekly errands.
- Changes in habits - You may be eating more or less than usual, or may be sleeping too much or not enough. You may also withdraw from others by becoming emotionally distant and detached.
- Physical changes - People suffering from compassion fatigue may experience headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, heart palpitations or shortness of breath. You may notice cold or flu-like symptoms. If you do have any of these physical changes, see your health care provider to rule out a medical ailment.
- Depression - Feeling sadness and grief, low self-esteem or a loss of interest in ordinary activities, or experiencing memory difficulties, extreme fatigue or frequent crying episodes are all also possible signs of compassion fatigue. If, at any time, you have suicidal thoughts, get help right away. The Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 can direct you to support resources in your community.
Coping and finding help
Untreated compassion fatigue can impair your performance at work or as a volunteer; therefore, it is important to get help promptly if you feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities. Be aware that assistance is available for care givers suffering the signs of "compassion fatigue" and that you are as important as the people you are helping.
Here are a some important things to do to take care of yourself:
- Eat well - Don't forget to feed yourself with healthy foods, preferably in several small meals, in order to sustain your energy throughout the day.
- Drink water - Not drinking enough water can cause a drop in energy level, shortness of breath and irritability. Try to consume six to eight glasses of water a day.
- Stay active - Whether you go for a walk, garden or go to the gym, exercise will help you stay fit and relieve stress.
- Sleep - Most people need seven to eight hours a night. Don't skimp on your sleep. You'll feel much better in the morning and be able to offer optimal care to your loved one.
- Take preventive measures - Stressful situations, poor eating and lack of sleep can leave you ripe for a reduced immune system. Remember to take care of yourself. Seek medical attention when you're not feeling well
- Have fun - Socialize with your friends online, on the phone or face to face. It's important for your emotional and mental well-being that you enjoy yourself and surround yourself with people who care for you.
- Schedule your breaks - Make plans with a trusted friend or relative to take over for you, so you can occasionally take a break from your duties. This will help prevent burnout.
- Join a support group - Seek out the help and camaraderie of people just like you, going through the same experience. It's helpful to talk about what you're going through with others who understand.
- Relax - Practice yoga, learn to mediate, garden or just relax and listen to soothing music. Discover the best way to decompress and spend a few minutes doing it every day.
- Journal - Keep a diary. Writing about your day, your hopes, your dreams and even your stresses can be therapeutic.
The stress and rewards of caregiving go hand in hand. But, if you ever feel overwhelmed, talk with a professional who may be able to suggest ways to help your loved one without neglecting your own needs. You can talk with a health care professional or get in touch with a non-medical counselor through Military OneSource at 800-342-9647. You can also access confidential, non-medical counseling services through the military and family life counselor program. More information is available at your installation family support center.