What Is Caregiver Compassion Fatigue?

Caregiver compassion fatigue involves mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those who care for another person. It can be compared to secondary traumatic stress, PTSD, or empathic distress. Caregiver compassion fatigue can affect their everyday life and outlook significantly. This is especially the case for those who care for loved ones with life-threatening illnesses like lung cancer.

A caregiver is usually a family member or close friend who offers support to someone with a debilitating illness by helping them manage and/or complete everyday tasks. A caregiver’s “job” encompasses a range of responsibilities, some which can include:

  • Coordinating medical appointments (scheduling and transportation)
  • Communicating with the cancer care team
  • Household tasks like cleaning, grocery shopping, or paying bills
  • Providing emotional stages support (encouragement, empathy)
  • Administering medications and treatments
  • Helping with mobility such as moving from the bed to other areas, eating, going to the bathroom, etc.
  • Taking care of insurance and financial matters

Being a caregiver can be a full-time or more job with little to no compensation (financial, emotional, or otherwise). It’s physically and emotionally draining for someone to be constantly surrounded by the suffering and pain that can come with late-stage lung cancer patients. Especially if the patient is a family member or friend.

Symptoms and What to Look For

If you’re caring for someone with lung cancer or know a person who is, recognizing the symptoms of caregiver compassion fatigue can help manage or avoid it. Two major symptoms of compassion fatigue that often go unnoticed are denial and guilt.

This is an image representing denial.

Going Through Denial

This may be one of the most harmful symptoms of caregiver compassion fatigue. This is because it hinders those experiencing it from realizing how stressed out they really are, which can prevent them from seeking the help and support they need. This also makes it essential for others to recognize the symptoms if the caregiver can’t do it themselves.

This is an image representing guilt.

Feelings of Guilt

This is a familiar feeling in caregivers. Guilt sometimes accompanies feelings of exhaustion or frustration when someone cares for their loved one. “They’re very sick and I’m not, I shouldn’t be feeling this way!” is a common thought in these situations. It’s okay for a person to be tired of caregiving, just like a patient can be tired of being sick. These feelings are normal and part of being human.

Other more apparent signs to look for include:

  • Decreased patience and tolerance that can cause loss of temper, angry outbursts, issues concentrating, or other uncharacteristic reactions
  • Excessive alcohol or drug use
  • Experiencing hopelessness or cynicism
  • Feeling drained, exhausted, overwhelmed, or overburdened
  • Increased anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Keeping emotions hidden, often serious, blank and emotionless
  • Loss of pleasure in life
  • Over or under eating
  • Physical reactions (headaches, nausea, constipation, or other gastrointestinal problems)
  • Poor self-care
  • Self-Isolation

Everyone has different limits and it’s imperative to try and recognize them to help reduce the chances of burnout.

How to Reduce Caregiver Compassion Fatigue

It can be easy to get caught up in caring for a person with lung cancer and lose track of self-care. A situation like this is impossible to plan and often takes a person by surprise. One minute a family member or close friend is diagnosed with lung cancer, the next, you’re in control of the many new responsibilities involved with caring for them. The timeline can be complicated and this complete life change isn’t easy. Some ways to help reduce caregiver compassion fatigue and maintain self-care in these difficult times are to:

Be kind to yourself.

Some people feel guilty if they can’t do everything their sick loved one needs. Understand and accept that you won’t be able to succeed at everything. Try not to belittle or self-deprecate. You may fail at tasks, forget certain things, or otherwise “mess up”, but don’t be too hard on yourself during this already-stressful time.

Mistakes happen and it’s important not to let them get you down. No one can care for a lung cancer patient perfectly, forever. It’s unrealistic.

Ask for help.

One individual person may provide primary care for their loved one, but eventually, they’ll need some type of assistance. Caregivers need a scope of support services to stay healthy, be good at their job, and continue on in their role. Those who know when to ask for help demonstrate less distress, fatigue, and burnout. Human connections help maintain strength, and you shouldn’t try to be responsible for caregiving all by yourself. If other friends or family members cannot help, there’s hospice care that can usually be made available for temporary relief.

Take personal time.

It’s essential to set aside personal time to eat, sleep, exercise, read, laugh, meditate, talk with a friend, or do other enjoyable things. This time is crucial to reducing fatigue and feelings of hopelessness. Spending hours, weeks, or months on end caring for someone is mentally and physically taxing, and taking personal time is a good way to take a break from it all. You also can seek the assistance of a hospice to come in and relieve you if need be. The hospice can perform a range of tasks and has professional knowledge of best practices for caring for a later-stage cancer patient.

Let people in.

Talking and letting out your feelings and emotions to a close relative or friend is helpful. Explain that they don’t need to have all the answers, but that you just need someone to listen. When people keep these things locked inside, it can be extremely detrimental to their mental, emotional, and even physical health. Seeking assistance from a professional is also conducive if family or friends aren’t enough. Seeing a therapist provides a safe outlet for the caregiver to release all feelings, thoughts, worries, or stresses building up inside of them. A therapist may also provide coping and communication mechanisms to help the caregiver manage everyday life.

Next Steps

Are you (or do you know) a caregiver experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue? You’re not alone. Recognizing the warning signs, understanding self-care methods, and knowing when to ask for help are integral to maintaining or avoiding compassion fatigue.