Combating Compassion Fatigue with Self-Care and Wellness

Since 2015, the U.S. has seen an increase in the number of unpaid family caregivers to the tune of 9.5 million. These are individuals who often work full-time jobs and juggle their own family responsibilities in addition to providing care for one or more family members. For caregivers, many who are also aging adults, this means higher levels of stress and less attention to their own health care needs often resulting in compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue can occur with anyone who has a career or life focused on helping and healing others, particularly those in distress. Those at high risk include someone who:

  • serves as a caregiver for someone else
  • works in an environment where helping others is their main responsibility
  • doesn’t have a support system to relieve them when fatigued
  • believes they are the only one who can do their job successfully

So where did the idea of compassion fatigue originate? As a young psychologist and first responder, Dr. Charles Figley worked with wounded warriors after the Vietnam War. He then realized he was taking on the soldiers’ traumatic experiences as though they were his own. In 1995, he coined the phrase compassion fatigue. Figley, a professor and founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University, describes it as an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.

Counselor and Therapist Tomeika S. Reeves, MSSW, LCSW, CCTP, shared insight into what caregiver fatigue looks like, ways to prevent it and resources available to support a person in this role.


“Some common signs of caregiver fatigue are heightened irritability and low frustration tolerance, apathy, change in sleeping or eating patterns and low energy,” said Tomeika.

Here are some additional signs and symptoms to watch for in yourself or someone else. These can include:

  • feeling emotionally and physically exhausted
  • isolating from others
  • physical problems due to stress, overdoing it, or lack of self-care
  • outward focus rather than putting oneself first
  • substance abuse struggles
  • feelings of depression or apathy
  • flashbacks, recurring nightmares, or intrusive thoughts
  • difficulty concentrating and loss of productivity
  • loss of hope and feeling like one’s contributions don’t matter


Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, describes how some individuals are more prone to compassion fatigue than others due to patterns that start in early childhood. Some people might learn at a young age to be a caregiver and never learn the importance of taking care of themselves. This personality trait might attract the individual to a helping career. These types of people are constantly giving to others until they have nothing left, and their tank is on empty. Other factors that could contribute to a pattern of putting others first include lack of personal boundaries, unresolved trauma, and feeling responsible to constantly help others.


Caregiver burnout can affect a person’s memory and concentration, as well as physical energy. “When this occurs it can cause clumsiness and an increase risk to injury to the self or the person in their care,” said Tomeika. “Burnout can affect a caregiver’s self-esteem and sense of self that may create self-doubt and hopelessness. Depression and anxiety are prominent in caregivers, and only increase when in a state of burnout.”


Caregivers need to be in a state of wellness to succeed at caregiving and avoid compassion fatigue. Psychologist Amy Williams, PhD, believes there are five crucial aspects of self-care, including getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising, having relaxation time, and having social support.

Caregivers can improve their quality of life and increase their levels of happiness by directing their attention inward and taking more time to care for themselves. Often, there might not seem enough hours in the day to fit in all we need to do. However, self-care is an essential ingredient to a healthy life. Until we properly take care of ourselves, we cannot be an effective caregiver for others.

Tomeika said, “Caregiver burnout starts in the body, so it is imperative to maintain and good mind-body connection so that the body’s response to emotional distress are noticeable and can be tended to in real time. “The best way to prevent caregiver burnout is to plan ahead and expand one’s support network so additional resources are already lined up when needed.”

Here are some additional tips for dealing with compassion fatigue:

  • slow down and make self-care a priority
  • try to strike more of a balance between caring for yourself and others
  • create a clear separation between your personal and professional life
  • don’t be afraid to ask for help—don’t try to hold the weight of the world on your shoulders
  • connect with colleagues who can relate to your experience
  • practice mindfulness by being completely present in whatever you are doing in each moment
  • be grateful for yourself and what you contribute to the world

Stepping into a caregiver role, by choice or by need, can be a rewarding experience but it can also be all-consuming. They need a lot of support, even when their words say otherwise. “Providing emotional support can seem so simple but could make a world of difference to a caregiver,” said Tomeika. “Letting them know they are not alone, offering a listening ear or even a shoulder to cry on may be just what is needed.”

Other ideas include:

  • Prepare a meal for the caregiver and those in their care or purchase restaurant gift cards to they can pick-up dinner.
  • Offer to run errands, have groceries delivered or walk their dog. Call or text them before heading out to run your own errands to see if they need anything.
  • Help out with chores, or find little things you can do without having to ask. Bring in their garbage cans, rake their leaves, shovel their sidewalk and driveway – all those little “have to” tasks that take time, something caregivers are usually short on.
  • Step into the caregiver’s role for a day or just a few hours.
  • Share helpful resources and information on topics like respite, meal delivery and caregiver support groups.

Masonic Homes Kentucky offers a monthly Caregiver Support Group every fourth Tuesday from 4 to 5 pm at its Miralea Active Lifestyle Community. The group meets in-person and is open to the general public. Learn more here.

Shared with permission from Wayne Corporation

December 15, 2023