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Shadows of Caregiving: Compassion Fatigue & Burnout

Co-Written by Mark Reeves and Mindi Counts

March 3rd is National Caregiver’s Day! And with caregiving comes its shadow: Compassion Fatigue and Burnout.


Did You Know:

    • Mark, Inner Ocean Center for Healing’s manager, alongside his husband Nate, runs a host home for adults with developmental disabilities?
    • John, one of Inner Ocean Center for Healing’s acupuncturists worked for years inside a group home for adults with developmental disabilities?
    • Mindi, Inner Ocean Center for Healing’s founder worked for 7 years as an advocate and caregiver for adults with developmental disabilities?

    • 29% of the U.S. population, some 65 million Americans are caregivers in some way?
    • Over 40 million Americans, age 15 or older, provide unpaid care to the elderly alone?
    • On average, caregivers spend over 24 hours, if not more, of their week and countless numbers of their own resources caring for a loved one, which can lead to mental health complications in the form of compassion fatigue and “burnout”?

With over ten million Americans being cared for by caregivers, the selfless people who give their time to care for those who are ill, disabled, or elderly, could often use some recognition. Unpaid caregivers are typically caring for a family member and it can be a thankless task where the caregiver goes unrecognized, giving their time and resources so their family member will be taken care of in a way that feels more aligned and appropriate given the person’s needs and wishes.

Since many caregivers neither seek nor accept any form of recognition, here are some ideas for showing them some love. Consider offering the following:

      • Giving a simple thank you to anyone who is caring for a loved one
      • Send a “thinking of you” card by mail, email, or text
      • If possible, give them a day off and take over the role of caring
      • Buy them a thank-you present or gift certificate for a massage, acupuncture, or a day at the spa
      • Invite them out for lunch or dinner and offer them a safe space to share their experiences if they wish

Symptoms of Burnout or Compassion Fatigue

If you are a caregiver yourself or someone you know is a caregiver, it’s extremely important to keep an eye out for any of the following symptoms of what is known as “burnout,” or “compassion fatigue.” These can include symptoms such as:

      •  pervasive feelings of sadness, 
      • guilt,
      • anger, 
      • helplessness, 
      • hopelessness, 
      • numbness, 
      • rigid thinking, 
      • apathy, 
      • inability to concentrate, 
      • hyper-vigilance, 
      • losing interest in the work that you recently loved, and 
      • withdrawing from pleasurable activities

Ask for Help

Compassion Fatigue

If you notice these symptoms in yourself or those caregivers you love, it is always okay to ask for help or to check in with your loved one.  Many caregivers (as you can imagine) prefer not to be recognized and, therefore, do not seek help at the onset of these symptoms, let alone even recognize them occurring.

Therefore, the best strategy to keep burnout, and compassion fatigue at bay is prevention. 

Here are some strategies we find helpful for prevention: 

    1.  Establish a healthy work-life balance, maintaining a diversity of interests, relationships, and activities.
    2. Build a database of relaxation techniques such as breathing, meditations, guided imagery, and working with mantras, chanting, or prayers. 
    3. Get out and into nature. Whether working in a garden or going on a walk, the natural world can help us to calm and reset our nervous systems. 
    4. Create a community of fellow humans whom you can meet with regularly and discuss your challenges and successes. 
    5. Set boundaries and see them as a way to strengthen your ability to say “no” and set limits in order to take care of yourself. 
    6. Get creative! Find playful and creative ways to express your energy whether through cooking, art, dancing, photography, etc.
    7. Continuing education is key. The more tools you have available to you, the more resourced and resilient you can become. 

Wrapping Up

And as a final word, sometimes prevention isn’t enough and burnout still happens. Hear this: That is okay. It is okay to feel burnt out and tired. However, if you notice any of the symptoms listed above, it is vital to ask for help from a friend, mentor, guide, doctor, therapist, acupuncturist, etc.  It doesn’t make you a bad person or caregiver if you feel this way, it only means you are human with a whole range of complex emotions. But remember that in order to fill other’s cups, we must first fill our own. We must first resource ourselves so we can help resource others.

So, to all the caregivers out there, we, here, at Inner Ocean Center for Healing see you, recognize you, and thank you for your dedication, commitment, and healing work you do in service to others.

Show the caregivers in your life some lovin’!

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