Do you have Compassion Fatigue or Caregiver Burnout?


If you’re a caregiver or if you know someone who is a caregiver, there is a good chance you or they have experienced compassion fatigue and/or caregiver burnout at some point during caregiving.

Compassion fatigue coined by Dr. Charles Figley, is “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper." Symptoms of compassion fatigue are:

  • Isolation

  • Emotional outbursts

  • Physical ailments

  • “Them” vs “us” mentality

  • Substance abuse

  • Sadness and apathy

  • Flashbacks and recurring nightmares

On the other hand, caregiver burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by the prolonged and overwhelming stress of caregiving. Symptoms of caregiver burnout include:

  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and other loved ones

  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed

  • Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless, and helpless

  • Changes in appetite, weight, or both

  • Changes in sleep patterns

  • Getting sick more often

  • Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring for

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion

  • Irritability

A caregiver may have some of these symptoms at some point in their caregiving journey or none at all, but even if there aren’t any symptoms, it doesn't mean there isn’t any suffering. It is common for caregivers to be so busy caring for others that they neglect their own physical, emotional, and even financial health. When a caregiver suffers from compassion fatigue (also called vicarious or secondary trauma), he/she may be experiencing trauma from working with those suffering. This differs from caregiver burnout, which is not trauma, but can co-exist along with it. Also, keep in mind that both compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout usually emerge over time.

Are you suffering?

According to the National Scientific Studies, about 50% of women and 60% of men in the United States are exposed to a potentially traumatizing event which results in secondary secondary traumatic stress. A great way to rate your positive and negative experiences and help you determine whether you may be suffering from compassion fatigue and/or caregiver burnout, is by answering this questionnaire developed by Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm. This is a scale widely used by medical health professionals (particularly nurses), teachers, lawyers, humanitarian workers, social and public service employees to evaluate compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. By figuring out how stressed you are, you can then take the appropriate steps to manage and combat triggers that overwhelm you.

Both compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout can lead to depression if change isn’t made. If the impact of caregiving is affecting one’s health, one should consider being evaluated by a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment. A caregiver usually cannot change the fact that caregiving is a part of her/his everyday life, but steps can be taken to alleviate the stresses of caregiving. Visit Must Know Resources and Tools for Caregivers for some ideas to alleviate the stresses of caregiving.

Jessica MartinsenComment