Compassion Fatigue: Why Caregivers Need to Take Care of Themselves, Too


“Is it okay to feel like this?”

“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I love them, but I just need a break.”

“What’s wrong with me? Am I a terrible person for feeling this way?”

Caregiver talking to family

If you have a family member or a friend with a disability and they rely on you to help them make it through their daily activities, you may find yourself struggling with toxic inner talk such as this and feeling guilty about it. And if that’s the case, the first thing you need to realize is that you’re not alone.

In fact, this mental struggle is so common among people who find themselves providing support and compassion for others day after day and week after week that it’s a widely recognized condition often called “compassion fatigue,” though the technical term is “secondhand traumatic stress” or “secondhand ptsd.”

As terrible as it can feel to have these selfish thoughts running through your mind, being a caregiver becomes much less stressful when you simply take a moment and accept that these kinds of thoughts are human nature and that it’s okay to have them.

Why Compassion Fatigue for Caregivers Happens

The brain is like a muscle. Our mental abilities can become exhausted with overuse, just like our biceps or any other muscle in our body. Two thirds of professionals who work in fields that demand high levels of compassion will experience secondhand traumatic stress at some point during their careers.

Whether you call it compassion fatigue or simply burnout, research dating back to the 1950s has shown caregivers or those in positions that routinely require a high level of empathy have a propensity to become physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted by the nature of their work.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Many who deal with mental issues never realize there’s anything wrong until the ailment has firmly taken hold and they begin to struggle with a trying combination of negative consequences. Mental struggles can layer one on top of another and become exponentially more severe if they’re not addressed quickly and appropriately.

Caregivers need to be on the lookout for signs of secondhand traumatic stress to deal with potential issues before they compound and become a tangled web of trouble.

Compassion fatigue for caregivers can look different for each caregiver. Here are some of the common symptoms to be on the lookout for:

  • Insomnia,
  • Depression,
  • Increased irritability,
  • Excessive weight loss, and
  • The potential to develop addictions.

If these issues continue unchecked, it may cause caregivers or compassion professionals to begin a downward spiral leading to increasingly dangerous, self-destructive behaviors.

Compassion Fatigue Prevention

If you’ve noticed yourself becoming stressed and overwhelmed due to your caregiver duties, you’re probably wondering how to avoid compassion fatigue.

Luckily, there are things you can do to pull yourself out of your current state and prevent these problems from taking hold in the future. Here’s a four-step action plan you can implement right away:

  1. Don’t Push Through: First, it’s important to resist the temptation to try to push through compassion fatigue. Your job performance and mental symptoms will inevitably begin to worsen as time goes on if you do this. Once you realize you have to stop pushing, you can take the following three steps to find a new sense of balance.
  2. Set Boundaries: It’s extraordinarily important for caregivers to establish boundaries. You need to be able to separate the other parts of your life from the job you do, get away from your challenges, recharge, and unload your stress.
  3. Establish and Rely on a Support System: Having a support system in place away from work or the environment where the demanding job is taking place is critical. Confiding in friends or family drastically reduces the effects of stress.
  4. Engage in a Hobby or Recreation Regularly: Finally, finding joy in a hobby or relaxation in recreational activities is a great way to ensure you take time away from the stress of being a caregiver or compassion professional. You need to schedule this relaxation time into your weekly calendar just like your work time. Make your “downtime” a priority.

Greater Balance = More Compassion to Give

If you employ the four-step program described above and stick with it over a period of time, you’ll start seeing the effects.

You’ll be less stressed, more relaxed, and you’ll notice that a lot of that toxic self-talk will go away.

And once that happens, you’ll be able to bring your full self to your caregiver duties. So, not only will you benefit greatly from your new sense of balance, but so will the person or persons you take care of.