If you think about it, a caregiver’s body and mind are in a constant state of stress. As a result, this unending stress can lead to physical exhaustion, as well emotional pain. When you reach this level of fatigue, you have reduced empathy for others, which makes it hard to be continue being compassionate with the person you are caring for.
If you are in a caregiver role, you may be wondering what to watch out for and if there is a compassion fatigue test for caregivers.
There are several compassion fatigue tests for caregivers. The most common is the ProQOL-5, which is a self-test that measures your level of compassion satisfaction and burnout. There are also others that are given clinically, such as the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS) and the Kingston Caregiver Stress Scale (designed for family caregivers), which measure your stress levels and how well you’re coping with caregiving.
We’ll look at those tests a little more in-depth in this article.
We’re also going to explore the symptoms of compassion fatigue and whether there is a cure, plus the treatments that can help reduce the negative impact of this debilitating condition.
Who Suffers Most From Compassion Fatigue?
The term “compassion fatigue” refers to a type of stress that can occur when you are constantly exposed to traumatic or difficult situations.
It is often experienced by caregivers who work with people who are suffering from chronic illness, mental health problems, or other difficult life circumstances.
As with so many things in life, there’s no one answer to the question of who suffers most from compassion fatigue.
However, some people may be more susceptible to the condition due to their personality type, life circumstances, or the type of care they provide.
Let’s face it – seeing the suffering of others, firsthand, can affect anyone who provides care for another, whether they are giving professional care, personal care, or they are family caregivers.
People in helping professions, such as health care workers, teachers, social workers, and first responders are among those who might experience compassion fatigue.
If you have been through a traumatic event, yourself, you also might be more likely to experience it.
It’s also very common in family members and other informal caregivers who are caring for a loved one.
Seeing the person suffer or knowing they are in pain or living with a terminal illness causes untold emotional stress and raises the risk of compassion fatigue.
In a study done by Bride (2007), “70.2% of workers experienced at least one of the core symptoms of STS in the previous week (Siegfried, 2008).Connie K. Hayek, LMSW
I found this to be true in my own personal life when my mom was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.
Our family went from normalcy to devastating emotional trauma over the course of a weekend.
Very quickly, my mother went from walking to a wheelchair – within a 10-day period.
My father had never done any type of caregiving in all his 92 years and was suddenly faced with taking on the cooking, cleaning, and care of my mom.
As a result, the first thing I did (aside from crying bucket loads of tears) was to put aside my own needs and make it a priority to help my parents as much as I could.
I spent my days off and weekends with them and often made the 80-mile round trip to help them in the evening after a full day’s work (in a caring profession, I might add – which means I had already given a lot of emotional support to my dental patients during the day).
Many times, I was so tired and so worried about Mom, and what Dad was going through to know he was losing his love of 68 years, and wondering how I would get through losing her, that I just wanted to bury my head in the pillows and stay home.
Looking back, there were many red flags that were signs of compassion fatigue, I just didn’t know it at the time.
We’ll talk more about those signs in a following section.
What Is Another Name For Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue goes by a couple of names. It is also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS) and also as Vicarious Traumatization.
Compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress are both characterized by feelings of apathy, depression, anxiety, and physical exhaustion.
Compassion fatigue is typically experienced by individuals who work in direct contact with trauma victims, while secondary traumatic stress is more often seen in individuals who indirectly witness or hear about others’ traumatic events.
In other words, you don’t have to personally go through the traumatic event to develop these conditions.
They can actually happen in people who have been exposed to a traumatic event through another person’s experience (so the individual is sympathizing with the victim of the event).
Caregivers, first responders, and others who work with trauma survivors are at risk for developing STS.
Unsurprisingly, people with compassion fatigue may experience symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hypervigilance.
If you don’t address these symptoms and, instead, continue on experiencing the stress, it can become secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD).
A disorder is more severe and causes significant distress or impairment in functioning.
To be diagnosed with a disorder, symptoms must be present for at least six months.
What Is The Difference Between Burnout And Compassion Fatigue?
There are significant differences between caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue.
In a nutshell, burnout is when you’re physically and emotionally exhausted from work.
Compassion fatigue is when you feel overwhelmed by the emotional stress of caring for others, like I did when I was trying to help my parents.
Also, it takes time to hit the burnout stage, while compassion fatigue usually comes on quickly.
Breaking it down further, compassion fatigue is is when you still have the capacity to give, but you no longer feel the motivation to do so.
When you’re so focused on caring for others, it’s easy to forget to take care of yourself.
While it’s important to be compassionate, it’s also important to set boundaries and take time for yourself.
Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling overwhelmed and stressed out and long-term caregiving will be very difficult.
Burnout, on the other hand, is a bit different. Burnout is when you’re so stressed that you can’t function anymore.
It’s a state of complete physical and emotional exhaustion – you’re completely depleted, both physically and emotionally.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time, but if you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed, it could be a sign of burnout.
So how can you tell the difference between burnout and compassion fatigue?
If you’re feeling compassion fatigue, chances are you’re still able to function normally.
You might be feeling drained, but you’re still able to show up for work/caregiving and take care of your responsibilities even if you don’t want to.
Burnout is different. When you’re burned out, you might start calling in sick to work or neglecting your responsibilities.
You might feel like you can’t get out of bed in the morning or like everything is just too hard.
Additionally, compassion fatigue can also be characterized by feelings of cynicism and detachment, whereas burnout is more likely to involve feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Compassion Fatigue Symptoms
Compassion fatigue is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s simply a natural reaction to caring for others.
By being aware of the signs and taking steps to prevent compassion fatigue, you can continue to provide care without harming yourself in the process.
The symptoms of compassion fatigue can vary depending on the individual, but may include:
- Feeling overwhelmed or hopeless
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- Changes in appetite
- Increased irritability or agitation
- Social withdrawal, feeling isolated from friends and family
- Feel like you’re always giving and never receiving
- Always feel tired or exhausted
- Have trouble concentrating
- Feel hopeless, helpless, or depressed
- General feelings of numbness or detachment
Compassion fatigue can ultimately lead to burnout, depression, substance abuse, and other health problems.
If you are a caregiver, it is important to be aware of the signs of caregiver stress and to take steps to prevent it.
How Do You Assess For Compassion Fatigue?
As I mentioned in the introduction, there are several tests to assess for compassion fatigue.
Some are administered by mental health professionals, while others are easily taken on your own (we have one you can check out in the following section.
Here is a little more info on some of the various available tests.
The ProQOL 5 is a free, online self test that is available in 28 languages.
Professional Quality of Life (proQOL) is intended for any helper – health care professionals, social service workers, teachers, attorneys, emergency response, etc. Understanding the positive and negative aspects of helping those who experience trauma and suffering can improve your ability to help them and your ability to keep your own balance.ProQOL
The ProQOL website also has handouts and guides to help you learn mindfulness, grounding techniques, and other coping strategies.
The ProQOL website also has handouts and guides to help you learn mindfulness, grounding techniques, and other coping strategies.
Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS)
The Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale is administered in a clinical setting by mental health professionals. The results are measured by adding the answer scores together in a certain way.
They also are used with an algorithm to uncover whether the test taker is also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The wording of instructions and the stems of stressor-specific items are designed such that the traumatic stressor is identified as clinical work with traumatized clients in order to minimize the possibility that respondents will endorse items based on an experience of direct traumatization. The STSS is comprised of three subscales, referred to as Intrusion, Avoidance, and Arousal, that respectively correspond to the B, C, and D criteria for PTSD.Bride, et al
Kingston Caregiver Stress Scale
The KCSS is a 9-item measure of compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress among caregivers.
It assesses the three components of compassion fatigue (emotional, physical, and spiritual) as well as burnout and vicarious traumatization.
We have observed that caregivers can attribute their stress to different sources. Accordingly the KCSS consists of a set of ten questions that are grouped into 3 categories: care giving, family, and financial issues.Providence Care (Canada)
The Kingston Caregiver Stress Scale is also administered by mental health professionals. It is geared towards the family caregiver and monitors the person’s change in stress levels over time.
Sample Compassion Fatigue Self-Assessment
As I’ve been saying, compassion fatigue can have a serious impact on your health and well-being, so it’s important to take steps to prevent it.
These include taking breaks, practicing self-care, and seeking support from others.
If you think you might be experiencing compassion fatigue, take this quiz to find out.
1) How often do you feel burnt out or exhausted from your caregiving duties?
2) How often do you feel like you’re not doing enough for your loved one?
3) Do you ever feel resentful towards your loved one?
4) Have you withdrawn from activities or hobbies that you used to enjoy?
5) Do you have difficulty concentrating or focusing on anything?
6) Do you find yourself feeling more irritable or impatient than usual?
7) Have you noticed a change in your sleeping patterns?
difficulty falling asleep
waking up frequently during the night
sleeping more than usual
sleeping less than usual
8) Have you lost your appetite or noticed a change in your eating habits?
eating more than usual
eating less than usual
9) Do you feel like you’re constantly on edge?
10) Have you lost interest in activities that you used to enjoy?
11) Do you feel like you’re not taking care of yourself the way you should be?
12) Have you been experiencing any physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches?
13) Do you find yourself withdrawing from family and friends?
Results: If you answered “frequently” or “occasionally” to any of the above questions, you may be suffering from compassion fatigue. Again, if left untreated, the negative effects of compassion fatigue can lead to depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
We’ll talk about this in detail in the next section, but if you think you may be suffering from compassion fatigue, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional.
Is There A Cure For Compassion Fatigue?
Just like with the earlier question of who suffers most from compassion fatigue, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question of a cure.
The best way to deal with compassion fatigue varies depending on the individual and their unique situation.
However, the good news is that there are things that can be done to help reduce or mitigate the impact of compassion fatigue.
Here are some general tips that may help caregivers dealing with compassion fatigue:
1. First and foremost, it is important to recognize the warning signs of compassion fatigue in yourself so that you can take steps to address it.
Again, some common signs include feeling overwhelmed, or constantly exhausted; and feeling detached from your work or those you are caring for.
2. Once you have identified that you are experiencing compassion fatigue, it is important to take some time for yourself to recover and recharge.
This may include taking breaks throughout the day, getting regular exercise, and spending time with friends and family.
3. It is also crucial to develop a support system of people who understand what you are going through.
This could include joining a support group or connecting with other caregivers online or in person.
4. Finally, it is important to be gentle with yourself and remember that you are doing your best.
Compassion Fatigue Treatment
There are various types of compassion fatigue treatments available that can help caregivers better cope with the demands of their job. Some common treatments include:
1. Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This type of therapy can help caregivers to identify and change negative thinking patterns that may contribute to compassion fatigue.
2. Stress management: Learning stress management techniques can help caregivers better deal with the day-to-day demands of their work and responsibilities.
3. Counseling: Talking with a mental health professional can provide caregivers with support and guidance as they deal with compassion fatigue.
4. Support groups: There are many support groups available for caregivers dealing with compassion fatigue. Joining one of these groups can provide much-needed support and understanding from others who are going through the same thing.
5. Time for yourself: It is important for caregivers to make time for themselves, even if it is just a few minutes each day. This can help to reduce stress and rejuvenate the mind and body.
Compassion Fatigue Prevention
If you’re a caregiver, it’s important to be aware of compassion fatigue and its effects.
Remember that compassion fatigue is a real phenomenon that can take a toll on your physical and mental health if you’re not careful.
The best way to combat compassion fatigue is to proactively manage it before it has a chance to take hold.
There are several things you can do to prevent or reduce compassion fatigue:
1. Get enough sleep: When you’re well-rested, you’re better able to handle stress.
2. Eat a healthy diet: Eating nutritious foods helps your body to function at its best.
3. Exercise regularly: Exercise releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting effects.
4. Make time for yourself: Dedicate some time each day to do something that you enjoy, without stress or obligations.
5. Reduce stress by using relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, mindfulness, deep breathing, spending time in nature, and journaling.
6. Connect with other caregivers: Sharing your experiences with others who understand can be helpful and cathartic.
7. Seek professional help: If you’re struggling to cope with compassion fatigue, talking to a therapist may be beneficial.
*If you have been experiencing the symptoms of compassion fatigue for more than 6 months, please seek out a mental health professional who deals with trauma. Trying to tough it out won’t help, especially if it’s been so long or your symptoms are getting worse.
Remember that it is a sign of strength to seek help, not a sign of weakness.
It means that you have shouldered the burden of your psychological distress for such a long time that you need to hand it over to someone else now and get some relief.
You might be experiencing compassion fatigue if you’re a caregiver and find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the demands required of you.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of isolation, irritability, and depression.
If you think you might be suffering from compassion fatigue, it’s important to reach out for help.
There are many resources available to caregivers, including support groups, counseling, and respite care. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.