We’re all caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic. And that means we’re all at risk of compassion fatigue.
By Anthony Cirillo, Contributor May 4, 2020, at 10:13 a.m.
Compassion Fatigue for Caregivers
In one way or another, we’re all caregivers right now during the coronavirus pandemic. For many, shelter-at-home has become a rally cry to care for one’s family and, if possible, one’s neighbor.
The pandemic is putting a strain on caregivers. Professional caregivers (health care workers) are experiencing war-like conditions, and new family caregivers are being born because of the virus. The intensity and duration of caregiving will result in PTSD-like symptoms for many.
You can care too much. It’s called compassion fatigue, and while caregivers typically experience some of this, the intensity has ratcheted.
I spoke with Dr. Edward Smink, author of “The Soul of Caregiving.” Edward helps caregivers experiencing compassion fatigue build skills of self-care and resilience to regain their original call to and joy of caregiving.
Who Are the Caregivers?
Edward is clear in his definition: We all are. As he explains, “At the heart of being human is the capacity to care, to reach out to others and explore the relationships we build.”
His definition of caregiving is broad in scope and covers a diversity of occupations and professions. His cast of characters include caregivers in the healing arts, health care professionals, physicians, nurses, therapists, health care and ancillary workers, certified chaplains, certified coaches, spiritual leaders, pastors, wellness coaches and first responders such as firefighters, safety officers and emergency medical service personnel. How about active and retired military, educators and parents who care for their chronically ill children, plus adult children who care for one or two parents? All caregivers, as Edward accurately suggests.
The stories of our national heroes at the front lines during this pandemic only highlight the nobility of caregiving.
The dictionary defines compassion fatigue as the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time. It is not an aberration or a mental illness, just the normal human reaction to experiencing traumatic events over a period of time.
Symptoms can be physical, emotional and spiritual, suggests Christina Maslach, author of “The Cost of Caring.” Physical exhaustion involves weight loss or gain, gastric distress, insomnia and aches and pains. Emotional fatigue, outbursts, relationship problems, racing thoughts and even suicidal ideation may occur. Suicides linked to the COVID-19 crisis have swept the globe and sadly show no signs of abating.
Most devastating, Edward believes, is the spiritual loss of meaning, where one’s original call and joy of caregiving becomes a task without meaning. Somehow a connection with one’s soul is lost.
From Compassion Fatigue to Compassion Resilience
Edward believes there’s hope, because he too suffered from compassion fatigue more than 20 years ago. He chose to include the word “soul” in the title of his book to bring attention to the caregiver’s interior values and strengths that can be rediscovered so that the caregiver can experience the joy of caregiving again.
Dr. Eric Gentry calls this rediscovery compassion resilience. Compassion resilience is the ability to maintain your physical, emotional and mental well-being while responding compassionately to the suffering of others.
Acknowledge the symptoms. The first step is acknowledging that one is experiencing the symptoms of compassion fatigue. Edward’s soul pain brought him to his knees, and he asked for help. He found this difficult, as do most caregivers. Yet it was the compassion of a pastoral counselor who reached out to him that broke his resistance.
Cultural and societal taboos often prevent caregivers from openly admitting, even to themselves, that there may be a problem. Caregivers are skilled at burying their emotions. They’re fearful of ridicule or being shamed.
Speak out and be heard. Frontline caregivers are breaking the cultural code of silence as they have openly talked about their needs. They are courageously, at the cost of being fired, speaking out and changing the cultural paradigm.
Caregivers experiencing compassion fatigue don’t need advice; they simply need to be heard, Edward suggests. Society has stepped up to honor, listen to and help frontline workers. But remember that family caregivers are front-line workers too. They must follow the same advice: Acknowledge your symptoms and speak out. Now is the time. Family caregiving is receiving a lot of attention.
Practice self-care. Caregivers have the Superman/Superwoman complex of thinking they are invincible. Yet it’s the same skills that are used for caring for another that one can use to care for one’s self.
• Recognize that it’s OK to be vulnerable, to not have all the answers, to celebrate one’s gifts and strengths, to seek and develop relationships, to take time for rest, to ask for help and, most importantly, to say no.
• Let go of the harmful feeling that you’re “not good enough.”
Everyone’s road to recovery is different. Compassion resilience comes about through slow, steady steps that lead one to experience one’s self again. Edward Smink is hopeful that a silver lining will emerge from this pandemic, allowing caregivers who are collectively experiencing compassion fatigue to band together. By supporting each other, they will not be alone or shamed or ridiculed. The caregiver’s team will be the medium to support healing and transformation.
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