How To Cope With Compassion Fatigue


The demands placed on a carer can often lead to what experts call “compassion fatigue”. Here’s everything you need to know.

Being a carer is an all-consuming responsibility, whether you’re doing hands-on personal care or managing care from a distance. That can put you at risk for compassion fatigue. 

Compassion fatigue can be a side-effect of caring for someone in need. It causes physical and emotional exhaustion and reduces your ability to empathise. 

It’s common in doctors, nurses and other health professionals, and is also called secondary traumatic stress. You basically get stressed from continually helping or wanting to help others who are suffering. 

If it’s not managed properly, compassion fatigue significantly impacts your health and wellbeing. It also reduces your ability to care for your older adult. You can’t be engaged, warm and caring because you just don’t have it in you anymore. 

To protect yourself, it’s essential to learn good self-care strategies and coping techniques. 

Here, we explain how it’s different from caregiver burnout, share the symptoms to watch for, and give eight tips for how to deal with what you’re experiencing.

Compassion fatigue vs burnout

Compassion fatigue and burnout have similar symptoms, but there are some key differences. Burnout usually develops over time. The major signs of burnout include emotional and physical exhaustion, feelings of negativity and indifference, and feeling like you’re not getting the job done.

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, happens when you become traumatised by your older adult’s suffering.

It can come on more quickly than burnout. You may still feel empathy and the desire to help, but you might feel overwhelmed by the symptoms. It can also lead to burnout.

The common signs

Compassion fatigue is basically a chronic, low-level cloud over the care and concern you have for your older adult. When you overuse your compassion without taking time to regularly recharge, the ability to feel and care for others becomes worn down. 

Coping strategies

Here are eight things that might help stop compassion fatigue in its tracks.

1. Be aware of changes in your level of compassion fatigue.

Your level of stress and how you feel about caring can change from day to day and may also depend on your older adult’s health. By regularly making notes on how you’re feeling, you can track your stress and compassion fatigue levels over time. 

You could try rating how you feel on a scale of one to 10. For example, if you’re usually feeling irritated and overwhelmed as well as having trouble sleeping due to worry, you might decide that you’re at seven, and jot down a few of your major symptoms. 

The scale is up to you – a one could mean no symptoms at all, a five could be a variety of symptoms that come and go, and a 10 could be that your symptoms are so severe and unrelenting that your health is at serious risk. 

Keeping an eye on your compassion fatigue levels and major symptoms helps you notice and take action before you reach a severe stage. 

2. Make self-care a priority.

Taking care of yourself isn’t a luxury. Self-care is essential if you’re a long-term carer. It keeps you mentally and physically healthy and protects against compassion fatigue.

It might feel selfish to take time out for yourself, but if you’re feeling run-down, overwhelmed and have a short temper, it will definitely come through when you’re caring for your older adult. 

Each person has a different way of taking care of themselves, but in general, you’d probably want to: 

  • Exercise regularly 
  • Eat a healthy diet 
  • Have a good sleep routine and get as much high-quality sleep as possible 
  • Take time for yourself each day – even if it’s only 10 minutes 
  • Get help with caring or household tasks 
  • Find ways to take breaks from caring – such as using respite care.

3. Spend time with friends.

An important part of maintaining balance while caring is to keep up your social connections. This helps prevent loneliness, isolation and depression. Spending time with friends chatting, sharing a meal or taking a walk are great ways to de-stress and take your mind off caring worries. 

4. Join a carer support group.

Carer support groups are filled with people in similar situations – they’ll truly understand what you’re going through. Whether you participate online or in person, these groups can significantly improve your quality of life because you’ll feel less alone and be able to get advice on handling difficult situations, vent frustrations, learn new coping skills and more. 

5. Write in a journal.

Journalling is an effective stress reduction technique that’s perfect for carers. Getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper and out of your head has been found to be very therapeutic. Journalling helps you process thoughts and emotions and can even help you find solutions to challenges or make tough decisions. Plus, writing in a journal is free, takes as much or as little time as you’ve got, and can be done anywhere.

6. Use positive ways to cope with stress.

After a tough day, it’s tempting to plop down in front of the TV with a bottle of wine, but that isn’t a positive coping technique. Instead, put together a list of go-to coping strategies that are positive and healthy. Try and do things that will make you feel better in the short term and improve your health and wellbeing in the long term. Suggestions include taking a walk, meditating, doing a short work-out, practising deep breathing, calling or texting a friend, watching funny video clips on YouTube, or taking a long hot bath or shower. 

7. Spend time on hobbies.

Before you were a carer, there were probably hobbies and activities that you enjoyed. Regularly finding time for those activities is a great way to take a break from caring for your older adult. This improves quality of life and reduces the risk of compassion fatigue because it’s something fun and creative that you do just for yourself – and isn’t related to caring, work or chores.

8. Speak with a counsellor or therapist.

If your compassion fatigue levels are increasing, talking with a counsellor or therapist can bring relief. They help people deal with negative thinking, stress, depression, anxiety, major life changes and more. A therapist can guide you towards effective ways to reduce compassion fatigue and manage the tough emotions that come with being a carer. 

To find out more about support groups near you, call Carer Gateway on 1800 422 737 and select “option 1” to speak with your local Carer Gateway service provider. They’ll register you with Carer Gateway and start the process.

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  1. All your suggestions are very practical and sound. And it all sounds very simple. However, I do not have the capacity, right now to carry them out. Taking notes; writing in a journal; participating in hobbies; are just not possible. I have cared for my Mother, who was in care with Dementia for her final years, now I am caring for my husband who has Alzheimers and Lewy Bodies. I cannot leave him alone, and it is difficult to take him to friend etc., because of his communication. I do belong to my local Carers Support, and occasionally participate in a monthly meeting if it fits in with my Husband’s Social Support Outing day. As I said in my second sentence, ‘it all sounds so simple’ and easy. Believe me it is not easy or simple. My husband is going to have 2 weeks in Respite, in a few weeks. Hopefully I will be able to recharge, and he doesn’t cause too much trouble over it.

In Need of Support?

Carer Gateway is an Australian Government program providing free services and support for carers. Call Carer Gateway for support and access to services, Monday to Friday, 8am to 5pm local time.

Assistance with accessing emergency respite is available any time, 24/7.

1800 422 737 

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