You’ve heard of burnout, but may not have heard of compassion fatigue. As more family members become caregivers, more seem to be learning about this term. A heavy workload and never-ending tasks may make you wonder if you’ve developed compassion fatigue. What is it and what can you do about it?

Compassion fatigue is a type of stress caused by caring for others. Although burnout develops over time, compassion fatigue comes on suddenly. In his article “Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: Watch for these Signs,” psychotherapist Dennis Portnoy classifies compassion fatigue as a form of burnout.

“Compassion fatigue is caused by empathy,” he explains. “It is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people.” According to Portnoy, burnout and compassion fatigue may overlap.

The American Institute of Stress, in the definition section of its website, describes this acute stress as “vicarious traumatization” because it’s caused by working with those who are suffering from the consequences of a traumatic event. The symptoms of compassion fatigue can be worrisome and include:

  • less ability to function
  • more stress than usual
  • caregiver feels traumatized
  • working harder, getting less done
  • irritability
  • feeling bored
  • more sickness, aches, and pains

When compassion fatigue strikes you and your loved one both suffer. You feel like your life has become a stress mess. Having a few of the symptoms doesn’t mean you have compassion fatigue. Until I found the cause of my symptoms, I thought I had compassion fatigue. I wasn’t functioning well, was extremely stressed, worked harder and accomplished less, was a general grouch, and had two arthritic hips. After my husband and I adjusted our daily routine and I was able to get seven hours of sleep a night, my compassion fatigue symptoms disappeared. It turned out I was suffering from sleep deprivation.

What can you do about this form of stress?

Assess your self-care. If you haven’t seen a doctor in years, now is the time to get a physical exam. Ask your doctor to update your prescriptions because some may be out of date.

Stay physically active. Put regular physical activity on your daily calendar. Walking is the easiest and cheapest form of physical activity. A fifteen-minute walk, short as it is, can boost your spirits.

Try deep breathing. Also called diaphragm breathing, this technique can help to reduce stress. The technique is difficult at first, but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.

Check your support system. Fill in any gaps that you find. Put a list of emergency phone numbers on your cell phone or by your landline phone.

Join a caregiving support group. This could be a hospital group, church group, or online community. Attend several meetings before you make a membership decision.

Include some fun in each day. Take a break and read a magazine, or watch a television program, knit for a while, or call a friend. Sitting quietly may also be fun.

Care for your spiritual self. How you do this depends upon your religious and spiritual beliefs. Ask your church for help if you need it because these are the folks who show up, work hard, and give you hugs.

Follow these steps and you can get rid of compassion fatigue before it starts.