compassion fatigue how to cope

Compassion fatigue: Ways to cope as a carer

5 min read |
Alistair Clay Author

Author 02.06.2023

Alistair Clay

Compassion fatigue is an issue that can affect carers whose levels of empathy and compassion drop due to mental and physical exhaustion.

The root cause of this lack of empathy isn’t malicious, but rather a complete sense of overwhelm.

Carers who experience it should seek support and try to establish a routine that allows them to practise self care alongside their caregiving duties.

This article will cover everything you need to know about compassion fatigue and how to cope if it’s affecting you.

Here’s a summary of what we’ll cover:

  • Compassion fatigue arises when carers have reached their emotional limit empathising with the problems of others.
  • It describes a loss of empathy and compassion due to the mental and physical challenges of being a caregiver. 
  • Symptoms can be similar to burnout, though compassion fatigue revolves around the loss of empathy while providing care. 
  • Compassion fatigue in carers should be dealt with by establishing boundaries for care and also practising self-care.
What is compassion fatigue

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the decreased ability to feel compassion and empathy when providing care for another person. 

It can happen as a result of helping others who have experienced some kind of trauma, whether that be an acute life-threatening situation or long-term illness. 

The condition overshadows the fulfilling nature of helping these people and causes the carer to withdraw from their work and support networks.

It is sometimes known as secondary stress reaction because the people who are likely to experience it are in caregiving positions. 

what triggers compassion fatigue

What causes compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue triggers can vary for different caregiving professions.

For example, a frontline medic may experience it differently from a psychologist or dementia carer – all being equally valid. 

Some professions deal with people who have had traumatic experiences while others may be overworked to the point of exhaustion. 

Fatigue is when these experiences start to affect your mental and emotional wellbeing outside of work. 

Are you worried about a loved one?

Early signs of dementia free guide

Can compassion fatigue affect carers?

Carers can absolutely be affected by the condition, though maybe for different reasons than others in high stress or healing professions. 

Compassion fatigue may be a product of intense work environments, for example:

  • Being physically or verbally threatened when providing care
  • Supporting someone with depression or another mental illness
  • Providing continuous care for long hours without support

Additionally, a carer’s physical and emotional energy is directed towards another who may be totally reliant on them. 

They may also be demanding or have complex care needs, which leaves no room for the carer to address their own needs.

Is compassion fatigue the same as burnout

Is compassion fatigue the same as burnout?

No, it is not the same thing as burn out, as the root cause is different. 

This being said, they may present similar symptoms that cause a person to socially withdraw and feel helpless. 

While burnout comes from the pressure of routine stresses, compassion fatigue is the strain of consistently empathising with others’ problems. 

Being exposed to their suffering every day can be overwhelming to the point that they become numb, which leads to a lack of empathy in caregiving settings. 

When might carers experience compassion fatigue?

Carers may experience compassion fatigue in professional settings or while looking after a loved one. 

People may experience this state for different reasons, and it is completely valid to feel the way you do. 

In this section we’ll look at two caregiving environments where compassion fatigue is common due to the particular triggers they invoke. 

What does end of life mean 

End of life care

Carers, both professionals and family, may experience compassion fatigue when caring for someone at the end of their life. 

This is due to the emotional burden for those providing end of life care to ensure that the person in their care has a good death.

Caregivers may also feel hopeless in this situation, as they may be fixated on the inevitable outcome. 

For more information about end of life care, read our guides to what is end of life care? and what is palliative care at home?

what are the stages of dementia Uk

Dementia care

Those providing dementia care are faced with the demands and emotional needs of their loved one every day, with a never ending to-do list. 

Some of the symptoms of dementia such as behaviour changes, memory loss and repetition can also cause extra stress for caregivers. 

Such symptoms may cause irritation or intolerance and lead to diminishing empathy levels between carer and care recipient. 

This could cause carers to be ineffective or, in extreme cases, lead to negligence in their care duties.

how does compassion fatigue affect people

Can compassion fatigue affect the care recipient?

Compassion fatigue is detrimental to the caregiver’s mental and physical health. 

Yet it could also have consequences for the person being cared for, who may not get the quality of care they need. 

Picking up on other emotions may also heighten their own, causing agitation or anxiety that must then be managed by their carer. 

In these situations it may be helpful to organise respite care – find out more about this in our guide what is respite care?

how can carers cope with compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue: ways to cope as a carer

If you are a caregiver, whether professionally or for a family member, it’s important that you know the signs of compassion fatigue. 

Taking a moment to look after your own needs is the first step if you begin to experience any compassion fatigue symptoms.

Finding your own ways to cope when you care for somebody else is essential, and you’re allowed to have some breathing space. 

In this section we’ll look at some of the things you can do to help yourself get back on track and overcome compassion fatigue.

Can you overcome compassion fatigue

Can you overcome compassion fatigue?

People who work with others in environments such as caregiving can be at a higher risk of developing compassion fatigue. 

This is because they are exposed to other peoples’ problems and pain on a daily basis, which can lead to this overwhelmed state. 

If you feel like you might be experiencing compassion fatigue it’s advisable to establish a new routine that includes self-care. 

Neglecting to look after yourself can lead to more serious psychological consequences or use of negative coping mechanisms.

Can it be prevented?

Compassion fatigue isn’t guaranteed to affect every carer, but it certainly helps to know what to look out for and how to remedy it. 

One of the key ways to prevent it is to practise self care in a way that works for you to maintain a balance with caregiving duties. 

This could include eating well, getting enough sleep, taking regular exercise and doing things for yourself. 

Self-care can also mean setting emotional boundaries and establishing the way you are able to work best. 

Are you worried about a loved one?

Early signs of dementia free guide

Get the right support

Support from family and friends can make a huge difference when overcoming compassion fatigue. 

You may also want to reach out to a community carer’s network, so you can talk with others who have experienced what you’re going through. 

Don’t forget that you may be able to claim a benefit if you care for someone at least 35 hours a week. 

Read more in our guide Can I claim a carers allowance for myself? 

palliative care team

Confused about your loved one’s care?

Organising different care services for your loved one can be confusing, and time consuming, to say the least. 

But Sweet Pea is here to streamline the process and help you connect with home care providers operating in your area. 

So you can focus on your loved one, knowing that their care is in safe hands.

Just click below to get started. 

Alistair Clay Author

Author 02.06.2023

Alistair Clay

Alistair is a founding Director of Sweet Pea Care and the Managing Director of social care communications agency Arc Seven where he advises some of the UK’s biggest care providers.