Preventing Compassion Fatigue: What Veteran Spouse/Partner Caregivers Need to Know

© Dr. Angie Panos and Gift From Within

Being a care-giver takes courage, but there are no medals for your efforts. As you are there day-to-day helping your injured soldier heal, it may take a toll on you. “Compassion fatigue” is what we call the set of symptoms that care-givers can sometimes experience.

What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue?

* Feeling estranged or isolated from others (Having difficulty sharing or describing feelings with others)
* Difficulty falling or staying asleep.
* Outbursts of anger or irritability with little provocation.
* Startling easily.
* While helping your loved one thinking about violence or retribution against persons who hurt them.
    Anger toward others who put them in harms’ way.
* Flashbacks connected to the trauma my loved one went through.
* Feeling there is no one to talk with about highly stressful experiences.
* Working too hard and not able to care for myself.
* Frightened of things my injured soldier has said about their experience.
* Experience troubling dreams similar to what my injured soldier has.
* Experienced intrusive thoughts and worries about my injured loved one.
* Suddenly and involuntarily recalling a frightening experience.
* Preoccupied with my injured loved one.
* Losing sleep over my injured soldier.
* Feeling trapped by my role as a care-giver.
* Feeling a sense of hopelessness.
* Feeling weak, tired, or rundown.
* Feeling depressed as a result of my care-giving.
* Losing balance between caring for my loved one and having any time for myself.
* Feeling little compassion toward others.
* Thoughts that I am not succeeding at achieving my life goals.
* A sense of worthlessness/disillusionment/resentment associated with my care-giving.

Prevention, Resiliency and Treatment

Early recognition and awareness is crucial in being able to be resilient to compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is treatable! Keeping your life in balance or getting it back in balance, by taking some time for yourself or enhancing your self-care are essential strategies. Keeping your body and your health in good shape is key to being strong through the distress. You are not going to be resilient if you are not well rested. You may need medical attention if the symptoms of compassion fatigue, such as sleep disturbance, start interfering with your ability to function. If you are eating poorly and not exercising you are more vulnerable physically and emotionally to the effects of distress. Therefore, keeping a healthy balance in your life is a requirement to prevent and treat compassion fatigue. Care-givers that have a structured schedule that allow them time to organize and do good self-care are more resilient (Panos, 2007).

Another essential factor to prevent and treat compassion fatigue is to have a good relationship with eithera friend, a counselor or a clergyman that you can safely and confidentially discuss the distresses you are experiencing. Isolation is a symptom of compassion fatigue and is ultimately dangerous. To be resilient you need to have good support and connections with others.

Many care-givers report that creative therapies such as writing in a journal, or expressing their feelings through music or art are helpful. Diversions and recreation that allow you to take mini-escapes from the intensity of care-giving is absolutely necessary.

What to do if you have symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:

* Have a recognition and awareness of the symptoms of compassion fatigue in yourself.
* Restore a healthy balance in your life, including good sleep, good nutrition and exercise.
* Get medical treatment for those symptoms that are interfering with your daily functioning.
* Utilize your positive supportive connections with others to process your feelings.
* Implement regular mini-escapes in your life, like recreation, creative therapies or other
    healthy diversions from the intensity of your work.
*Get respite care for your loved-one to give you a break from your role as a care-giver.
*See a counselor to assist you in dealing with the stress of your care-giving role.
* Don’t medicate yourself with drugs or alcohol! Don’t use other self-defeating addictions!
    Get professional help for yourself if needed to get back on track.

With a balanced approach that takes into consideration your own self-care plan, both you and your injured loved-one can heal. Compassion fatigue can be either prevented or treated early on before it takes a toll on you or your relationship.

References and Suggested Reading:

Figley, C.R. (1993a). Compassion Stress: Toward Its Measurement and Management. Family Therapy News, February, 1-2.

Figley, C.R. (1993b). Compassion Fatigue and Social Work Practice: Distinguishing Burnout from Secondary Traumatic Stress. Newsletter of the NASW Florida Chapter, June, 1-2.

Figley, C.R. (Ed.) (1995). Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized. An Overview. 1-20. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Panos, A (February, 2007). Promoting resiliency in trauma workers. Poster presented at the 9th World Congress on Stress, Trauma, and Coping, Baltimore, MD.

Pines, A. & Aronson, E. (1988). Career burnout: Causes and cures. New York: Free Press.