How to Protect Yourself From Burnout When You're Caring for Others
Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt burnt out.
Don’t worry, I’m raising my hand, too. It took a lot for me to understand what burnout was and how it affected the people around me—especially my friends and family members who are caregivers or work in professions where they are caring for others.
When we care for others, we often forget that the caring itself takes energy—and sometimes that can lead to what psychologists call “compassion fatigue.”
Take Sonali Kohli, for example. In March 2019, the Los Angeles Times journalist took to Twitter to pen an incredibly vulnerable thread about her mental health.
In 10 tweets, Kohli explained that she was taking three weeks off of her job because of PTSD and burnout as a result of writing and reporting on mass shootings and deadly fires across California. Her thread went viral because of her openness about struggling with mental health, but also because secondary trauma isn’t something we always talk about but so often experience.
Compassion fatigue is the feeling of “deep physical and emotional exhaustion” that comes from caring for other people, and the symptoms resemble a combination of burnout and secondary trauma.
“Tiredness, worry, physical and emotional exhaustion, and sometimes anger and frustration…[it can] sap the spirit and create an unhealthy cocktail of guilt, fatigue, isolation and self-criticism,” psychologist Anna Rowley, Ph.D., tells Shine.
What makes compassion fatigue unique is that it is more immediate and acute—especially compared to the long, drawn out nature of burnout. Think of it like this: according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, compassion fatigue is sometimes described by people “as being sucked into a vortex that pulls them slowly downward.”
But journalists or caretakers aren’t the only ones who may feel compassion fatigue. It’s something that impacts anyone who practices empathy consistently in caring for others. Teachers, social workers, counselors, veterinarians, and caregivers in professional and personal roles experience it.
It also heavily impacts a workforce that touches the lives of everyone: medical professionals. Compassion fatigue specialist Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., claims, “one-fifth of nurses reported that their mental health had made their workload difficult to handle during the previous month.”
People from marginalized groups experience levels of compassion fatigue in even more extreme ways. For example: Research shows that Black nursing assistants experience severe race-related stress that compounds and exasperates compassion fatigue.
If you have an inkling that you might be experiencing compassion fatigue–don’t worry, you aren’t alone. There are immediate steps you can take to heal from compassion fatigue—here are a few.
1. Ask Yourself: What’s Important To You?
When you are caring for other people, it can be easy to forget to care for yourself. Studies show that 40 to 70% of caregivers deal with depression and anxiety. But your health matters, too. A stronger you leads to a stronger support system around you.
To curb compassion fatigue, it’s crucial to reflect on the priorities and values that are important in your life. Take time to answer this question and refocus on what matters to you beyond the responsibilities of caregiving. Then, start thinking about how you can carve out time for those things.
If it feels tough to do, maybe consider finding a professional to talk with. As Rowley points out, stepping outside of your traditional self-care routines might be helpful and necessary to heal.
“Often the only person available to offer support to the caregiver is him or herself, so it's essential they practice extreme levels of self-awareness and self-care,” Rowley says. “It’s important to avoid the super-hero trap or the ‘I can cope with my elderly parent; my children, spouse and job.’ We all have limits, and recognizing your own is an important part of self-care.”
2. Take A Break
Mother Theresa herself required that nuns take up to five years off because she knew that caregiving can take a mental toll on people. While stepping away from the workplace was something Kohli of the Times was able to do, that might not be the case for everyone.
But even taking a few hours to decompress and shake stress can help improve your wellbeing. Additionally, making sure you’re sleeping enough (and well) can make all the difference.
An easy place to start: Try incorporating some "breath breaks" into your day. Deep breathing exercises can help you relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety, and often all they take is a few minutes.
3. Give It Time
“Whatever your situation, it’s critical that the carer gets cared for,” Rowley says. Even when you’re caring for someone else, you have permission to prioritize your own health and wellbeing.
It may take shorter or longer than you expect, but giving yourself time to figure out what it is that you can do to prevent future cases of compassion fatigue is worth the time.
You got this.
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