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Caregiver Stress and Compassion Fatigue

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Caring for someone with a mental health problem like bipolar disorder or ADHD can be overwhelming. Learn how to deal with caregiver burnout.

As the parent of a child (or children) with high needs, the lives of all involved are complicated. It's very easy to become hyper-focused, over-involved, and unable to separate "self" from "situation." This is very common, normal, and at the same time, dangerous.

The very things required to function within daily life of caring for a child or other family member with exceptional needs can lead to feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. If unchecked, these feelings build; leaving one vulnerable to getting stressed over things that were once not stressful. This can be further complicated if the caregiver has a diagnosis of, or tendencies towards depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or other similar mood disorders.

Compassion fatigue

Have you heard of compassion fatigue; sometimes called secondary victimization or traumatic stress, vicarious traumatization? It's a form of burnout, a deep physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain. Compassion-fatigued caregivers continue to give themselves fully to the person they are caring for, finding it difficult to maintain a healthy balance of empathy and objectivity. The cost of this can be quite high in terms of functionality, family, work, community and most of all, self.

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You probably already realize that living with an unstable child (with behavior problems) subjects all family members to daily trauma at times. Numerous symptoms indicate that a caregiver is experiencing reactions to traumatic stress. In fact, the very qualities that make one an excellent caregiver - empathy, identification, safety, trust, intimacy and power - are the very qualities that can cause one to face burnout.

Learning to recognize the symptoms within oneself that indicate heightened stress is imperative to addressing, relieving and avoiding it. Stress unchecked will lead to caregiver burnout.

Those who have experienced compassion fatigue describe it as being sucked into a vortex that pulls them slowly downward. They have no idea how to stop the downward spiral, so they do what they've always done: They work harder and continue to give to others until they're completely tapped out.

Caring for someone with a mental health problem like bipolar disorder or ADHD can be overwhelming. Learn how to deal with caregiver burnout.Symptoms of burnout

  • Abusing drugs, alcohol or food
  • Anger
  • Blaming
  • Chronic lateness
  • Depression
  • Diminished sense of personal accomplishment
  • Exhaustion (physical or emotional)
  • Frequent headaches
  • Gastrointestinal complaints
  • High self-expectations
  • Hopelessness
  • Hypertension
  • Inability to maintain balance of empathy and objectivity
  • Increased irritability
  • Less ability to feel joy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Workaholism

To those who are in the throes of compassion fatigue, time, or more precisely the lack of it, is the enemy. To compensate, many caregivers try to do several things at once (e.g., eat lunch while returning telephone calls). And to make more time, they tend to eliminate the very things that would help revitalize them: regular exercise, interests outside of caregiving, relaxed meals, time with family and friends, prayer and meditation.

Treating caregiver stress and burnout

To recharge your batteries you must first learn to recognize when you're wearing down and then get into the habit of doing something every day that will replenish you. That's not as easy as it sounds. Old habits are oddly comfortable even when they're bad for us, and real lifestyle changes take time (some experts say six months), energy and desire.