Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue by Dr. Tam Cummings for

Identifying people with Compassion Fatigue is a hot topic among professional caregivers. A positive diagnosis means making major changes in your career and life. The medical name of Compassion Fatigue (CF) is Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD). Translated, it means you are not the person experiencing the trauma, but the nature of your profession means you are constantly surrounded by other people’s traumas.

It is this stress of being surrounded by or having to address and attend to severe illness or trauma in other peoples’ lives that leads to CF. The result? Persons trained and skilled to provide physical or emotional care and empathetic care to others stop doing so. Typically, they begin to only go through the motions of using their specific skill sets and patient care declines. If left untreated, the person will eventually be forced to change careers, a heartbreaking challenge for seasoned nurses or social workers, etc.

The idea of CF grew from observations of care in a cancer hospital. Oncology nurses were identified first. The nurses knew what to do, but appeared to no longer care about performing their tasks of care effectively. Once the concept was initiated, social workers, physicians, police and other first responders, etc. were added. We accepted the result of not paying attention to our own mental and physical health meant a decline in our effectiveness to care for others.

It’s curious to me though, why we don’t recognize the fatigue of compassion in the family caregiver? It is a logical concept that if trained caregivers working in traumatic circumstances 40 hours a week are at risk to develop CF, then wouldn’t the family caregiver also face the emotional and physical responses? CF falls into the mood disorders between depression and anxiety and shares characteristics of both. It is treatable, but your physician needs to really hear you when you say you are a caregiver.

Symptoms are both physical and emotional.

They can be so subtle as to be overlooked as stress or exhaustion and be dismissed as not serious. Physical clues include sweating hands, frequent headaches, non-specific aches and pains, difficulty concentrating, upper and lower digestion problems, shortness of breath, and sleeping challenges. The emotional symptoms include sudden mood swings, short temper, tearfulness or sadness, and frequently symptoms of anxiety. Feelings of often overwhelming guilt are also features of the illness.

While not yet seen as a medical condition among family caregivers, I expect in a few years this will change. As more becomes known about the effects of caregiving, hopefully more assistance will be forthcoming. CF is identified through a specific test, which is self-administered and takes about 20 minutes. Currently the material is only seeking to identify CF in professional caregivers, so test takers will need to see their caregiving as a job when answering the questions. In the end you will know whether you are facing Burnout (meaning you need a week off) or Compassion Fatigue, which will call for medical intervention.

CLICK HERE to take the test:

Or DOWNLOAD the self-score test here:

Take the test please, and take care of yourself.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful article.

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