The Cost of Caring

photo credit: Jonathan Borba on

We are all currently grateful for and in awe of the phenomenal work being done by our healthcare professionals. Some of us have personally benefitted from this work when in dire medical need. Yet, what is the cost paid by those professionals? It could be something called compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue.  What is it and who is most at risk for suffering from it?  The American Institute of Stress defines it as “The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events”. It might be unusual to think about the Coronavirus pandemic as a trauma.  We often reserve the word trauma for what a warrior goes through in combat, the devastation left by natural disasters, or a person being abused in some way. There are so many people with the illness who don’t even have symptoms.  But for some, the domino effect of this illness can be traumatic and lead to great tragedy. Not only for the person suffering, but also for the ones who bear witness to that suffering. Today, I’m especially reflecting on the ‘front-line’ workers – or as many are calling themselves – the last line of defense. Doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, First-responders – all of the caregivers watching this devastating illness unfold in our emergency rooms.

When I consider the official definition of compassion fatigue, coupled with the stories I’m hearing from healthcare providers about watching people die alone or consider the desperation those providers must feel in efforts to save lives, I can’t help but consider the ultimate burden they must bear.  Many may already be suffering compassion fatigue and currently all are at risk. Mental healthcare providers are familiar with the term as we frequently spend considerable time caring for people who’ve been traumatized. In fact, any caregiver who’s responsible for the care of others experiencing trauma is at risk for this type of “emotional residue”. 

If you’re suffering compassion fatigue what does that look like? It can take on many forms. It causes you to doubt your effectiveness, make you question your purpose and cause you to withdraw from your own loved ones. It can lead to physical exhaustion. If severe, it can weaken a person’s immune system and show up in your body as joint pain, dizziness and even disorientation. If left unaddressed, it can lead to anxiety or severe depression. It’s quite a ‘catch-22’ for professional caregivers. Many of them entered their vocational field and ‘give care’ out of a strong sense of compassion and empathy for others. Yet that very sense of compassion keeping them so dedicated can cause them great mental, emotional, and even physical harm.  So, what can you do to take care of yourself in the face of compassion fatigue?

The first thing is be aware.  Take time to learn what it looks like and feels like in your body, knowing what it sounds like in your thoughts.  Next, be honest with yourself.  Caregivers sometimes struggle to admit they have limitations.  Their strong sense of devotion makes it hard to think about self-care. Yet, self-care is not just a trendy term we see floating on social media. It’s necessary we all learn to care for our ‘self’. It’s important to take action on that awareness so that the caregiver can continue to honor their dedication to others.

“….self-care is not just a trendy term we see floating on social media.”

Here are 4 things you’ll want to do if you’re in a position that places you at risk for compassion fatigue:

Check in with your body daily.  Does it need rest, water or nutrition?  Perhaps you need exercise to release tension and build stamina?  Even small amounts of exercise or movement daily can yield significant and positive changes both physically and emotionally.

Take a mental break from high expectations.  You likely place those expectations on yourself in the role of care provider in order to do your best for others.  It’s important, however, to remember that everyone has limitations.  It’s just a part of being human. 

Intentionally create a balanced life.  Engage in healthy activities that are solely for your own benefit or enjoyment.  Perhaps start a hobby or connect with others for the purpose of having fun and relaxing. Even learning how to just be, without doing anything at all can yield much needed mental and physical results.

Talk to a trusted person about how you’re feeling.  It’s important to process those self-doubts. Plus, talking with someone can help you stay connected. Spending much of our time caring for others can tend to leave us feeling isolated from others. We might begin to tell ourselves they couldn’t possibly understand what we’re going through. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or therapist, it’s important to tell your story in a trusted space.  Talking through your thoughts and emotions prevents them from bottling up inside which can add to the most harmful consequences of compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is real and anyone suffering its consequences deserves to feel better. While it is the result of doing valuable and noble work, it can result in painful symptoms. Fortunately there are both preventive steps that can be taken and healing can occur in its aftermath. I’m grateful for our healthcare providers and admire anyone who takes on the role of caregiver, hoping they add themselves to the list of people they care about.

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

About L. Chris Cannida

I am a licensed professional counselor practicing in Oklahoma.
This entry was posted in Counseling, Counseling and Mental Health, Resilience, Self Help and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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