Almost everyone is a caregiver to someone. With care giving comes a variety of rewards and inevitable stress. Compassion Fatigue is a consequence of expending energy day in and day out caring for others and affects every aspect of a person’s life including their physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. . Those most at risk for Compassion Fatigue include physicians or veterinarians, nurses, mental health professionals, clergy, attorneys, judges, military personnel, volunteers, first responders such as police, paramedics or firefighters, and even “first responders” at home such as those caring for an ill family member.
Compassion fatigue comes on gradually. The symptoms may start with subtle mood changes such as sadness, irritability or anger , or anxiety . Other symptoms may include fatigue that is not improved by a night of sleep or a weekend off, disrupted sleep patterns, loss of interest in work or care giving, difficulty concentrating, absenteeism from work, weight gain or loss and physical symptoms such as upset stomach or headache. Activities at work or at home may be avoided. Our care giving work may seem pointless. Some may turn to tobacco, drugs or alcohol to cope.
We often shortcut the very activities that may help Compassion Fatigue. People often erroneously believe that working harder will solve the problem. The best solution includes recognizing the following:
1. A single person can’t be all things to all people.
2. If we don’t first care for ourselves, we are unable to care for others.
3. Set aside time for relaxation and reflection. For example, eat a meal with your family.
4. Include time for exercise as this can be a powerful antidepressant.
5. I often remind patient’s families that caring for an ill family member is often “More a marathon than a sprint.” It is essential to share the burden with family and friends.
6. Join support groups in person or on-line.
7. In caring for ill patients on the front line of medicine, I have found it is helpful to redefine success. If our definition of success is that every patient survives, we will inevitably lose 100% of the time. Success may include helping a patient recognize their own goals for treatment.
Jennifer Pate, MD