When caring becomes too much: signs and solutions of compassion fatigue

Mar 5, 2016

Caring for someone you love can have its rewards—one of them being peace of mind that they're in good hands. But providing long-term care can take its toll. In shouldering the emotional burdens of others, caregivers can feel drained and helpless to make a positive difference, and the result can be detrimental to their own health.

Compassion fatigue is the term used to define this, a term that’s not often heard. To talk about it this week on “Take Care” is Jane Pernotto Ehrman. Ehrman is a lead behavioral health specialist at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Lifestyle Medicine in the Wellness Institute, where she oversees lifestyle wellness programs for chronic disease and general wellness.

There are three major emotions that can come into play when someone is experiencing compassion fatigue: empathy, guilt, and resentment, according to Ehrman.

Empathy

Ehrman says empathy can be a good thing because you’re able to see what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes. However, it can also be a strong emotion that can be draining on a person.

“It becomes a slippery slope when the caregiver starts to take on the emotional burdens of the care receiver,” Ehrman said.

This means you become completely preoccupied with the care receiver’s emotions, even when you’re not with them, and lose focus on your own state of well-being. This can be stressful and overwhelming and have an impact on certain health aspects, like the quality and amount of your sleep.

“You can’t effectively sleep with one eye open,” Ehrman said.

Ehrman says a red flag that can warn whether you are experiencing compassion fatigue can come from a simple question: “How are you?” If the reply is something like “I’m managing,” this may mean the line between the caregiver’s emotions and the care receiver’s emotions is starting to blur.

Guilt

Ehrman says people with compassion fatigue often feel they should be able to do it all. Guilt can stem from this by creating a feeling that no matter what they do it’s not enough—even if the care receiver doesn’t express this. People will also out-do themselves because they feel guilty that their own life is good and the care receiver’s life has problems. However, it can be easy for a caregiver to get caught up in this and forget their personal life even has positive aspects. 

“It starts to bleed into feeling guilty about having a day to yourself, or 10 minutes to yourself,” Ehrman said.

However, it is also possible for the care receiver to verbally cause guilt in the caregiver by saying they wish they would do more for them. Ehrman advises that the best way to solve this is through effective communication, which may require the presence of a professional to ease the tension.

Ehrman also mentions respite care to give the caregiver a break could be a solution.

Resentment

Resentment could be considered the ultimate warning sign that someone has compassion fatigue and needs help, Ehrman says.

“It’s a sign that you’re not taking care of yourself, that you’re not getting enough space and time away,” Ehrman said.

In some cases this can lead to verbal or physical abuse toward the care receiver, such as yelling, swearing, or grabbing them in a violent way.

“It can happen in a heartbeat to the most educated people when they are pushed to their limits and beyond,” Ehrman said.

Seeking Help

If you recognize you or someone you know is struggling with compassion fatigue, Ehrman says don’t be afraid to ask for help. Good outlets for this can be:

  • Counseling
  • Support groups
  • Meditation groups
  • Stress relief classes
  • Yoga classes

“Take other avenues to help meet your needs and get some space where you can be often away from the situation for a while,” Ehrman said.