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Protecting Yourself as a Caregiver: Caregiver Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

caregiver burnout vs compassion fatigue

Understanding the Differences Between Caregiver Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Caregivers experience so many emotions, may feel overwhelmed, and therefore need support in their role. Those working in respite care or home care especially find themselves on the verge of these conditions. If not careful, those in a caregiver role can experience caregiving burnout and compassion fatigue. Caregiving burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, which often includes prolonged negative attitude over long periods of time.

Whether you are a family member in a caregiver role (often known as family caregivers), or a hired caregiver, it’s vital to understand the symptoms of caregiver burnout and warning signs of compassion fatigue. Many well-meaning family members and friends may think it’s just a matter of physical exhaustion, and may not realize how important it is to get help with things like a support group, or the help of a mental health professional. Another great place to start is to simply understand the warning signs and symptoms to help you be aware of what you may be experiencing.

What is Caregiving Burnout?

Caregiver burnout is often known as a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It often is paired with a shift toward a negative state of mind and attitude. Caregiving burnout occurs when you take on more than you can truly handle financially and physically without sufficient support. It also occurs when people have unrealistic expectations surrounding a declining health condition of a family member or loved one. Caregiving burnout often sneaks up on most people and they don’t even realize there’s an issue before they have multiple symptoms of caregiving burnout.

Common Symptoms of Caregiving Burnout:

  • Declined interest in hobbies, activities, and pastimes you once enjoyed
  • Feeling down, hopeless, helpless, and depressed
  • Changes in quality of sleep and sleep patterns
  • Increased sickness and weak immune system
  • Withdrawal from family members of friends
  • Increased reliance on alcohol or sleep medications
  • Physical exhaustion and emotional exhaustion
  • Increased feelings about wanting to hurt yourself or your care recipient

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Caregiver compassion fatigue is often not talked about as much, but it can be a very serious state of being. Compassion fatigue is a step beyond caregiving burnout, which includes a state of extreme tension and stress. Compassion fatigue is a secondary stress disorder, caused by exposure to traumatic experiences with a caregiving recipient over long periods of time. Over time, a caregiver may experience waning levels of empathy and difficulty being compassionate. It can happen with employed caregivers as well as family caregivers.

Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue:

Compassion fatigue has very similar symptoms to caregiver burnout, but with a few elevated warning signs to be aware of:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased irritation over minor issues that normally don’t both you
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Increased anxiety
  • Headaches, stomach aches, and other pain in the body.
  • Outbursts of anger

How to Avoid Caregiving Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

The work of being a caregiver is such an important role, but it obviously comes with some risks. It’s so much more than just dealing with physical exhaustion, as so many jobs may experience, but also includes a very real emotional toll and mental health factor. The caregiver role changes from respite care to home care to hospice care and more. However, all caregiver roles carry a similar thread of this exhaustion component that requires some proactive self-care.

Here are a few tips to help protect yourself in your caregiver role

  • Find a Support Group: Support groups are a simple way to find simple awareness that you are not the only person feeling the way you do. They also help you put words to the things you are experiencing in a non-judgmental way.
  • Seek Out a Mental Health Professional: Don’t hesitate asking for help from a licensed counselor or mental health professional who can help give you tools to cope and thrive in your caregiver role.
  • Seek out Friends and Family: While your friends and family may not fully understand what you are experiencing and feeling, they can help be a listening ear. They can also help provide opportunities for you to get a break and do things outside of your caregiving responsibilities.
  • Recognize When You Feel Overwhelmed: One of the best things you can do is simply recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed. Recognizing and naming how you’re feeling can help you respond better and tap into other tools you have in your mental health toolbox to help manage your situation.
  • Exercise: If you have the opportunity to get endorphins pumping, they can greatly increase your mood, while allowing you time to process some emotions and find an outlet for any hard emotions. It also is a way to take care of your own body at the same time.
  • Seek Out a Hobby: Consider a hobby or pastime you used to enjoy, or seek out something you’ve always wanted to try. These can be great outlets to help your emotional and mental health, while giving you a break from some of the hard things that you encounter in your caregiver role.

Burnout and compassion fatigue are very real conditions that caregivers experience from time to time. Both of these conditions have a very real physical, emotional, and mental cost. However, many people feel they have to put up a strong facade, but over time that can actually do more harm than good. That’s why it’s important to be aware to recognize the warning signs and understand your options for self-care. Both you, and your care recipient, will benefit in the long run.

If you are looking for a great place to work in respite care, home care, and other forms of elder care, All American care is waiting for you. We care about the whole person, both for the caregiver and the care recipient. Learn how you can care for others alongside a team that cares for you.

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