A Resolution for Caregivers

It’s a new year. And the resolution to care for yourself – body, mind and soul – will be the most important, accessible promise you can make – but this resolution can only be kept if it is made from purpose, not pressure. And it must be made before your tank is emptied.

fuel-gaugeWhile caring for your body involves aerobic and resistance exercise, the real muscle growth and overall physical improvement actually happens on rest days between exercises. Even more, it is during sleep that the body rapidly heals and repairs itself. Training the same muscle group every day is the sure path to fatigue, not vitality. You must rest and refuel in order to make gains.

In the same way, working in healthcare without taking regular breaks, without relaxing and nurturing yourself on days off, or taking vacations is a sure path to compassion fatigue. The soul, instead of the muscle, becomes strained and worn out.

Compassion fatigue is the emotional residue from working with those who suffer. Unless addressed, it leads to vicarious trauma and, eventually, burnout.  Though compassion fatigue sounds like something you want to avoid, it actually indicates you have a good heart; it is the mark of a truly evolved soul. The key is managing such sorrow so it does not swallow you. How can you tell if you have compassion fatigue? There are many signs, including:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Reduced sense of personal accomplishment or meaning in work
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Decreased interactions with others (isolation)
  • Depersonalization (emotionally numb and disconnected)
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Nightmares
  • Anger, blaming others or ongoing frustration

It’s hard to know you have compassion fatigue since your very ability to accurately assess yourself diminishes as your stress increases. Your mind will also tend to deceive you, as we naturally spend a great deal of energy avoiding ourselves. But your body and behaviour will not lie. So, first thing to do is use mindfulness; listen to your body, scan it for chronic aches, stress, or fatigue. Notice your breathing – is it shallow, or relaxed and deep. Pay attention to what is in this moment, including the more unpleasant thoughts and emotions.

Second, ask those you trust for their observations on your well-being. This can include family as well as friends and coworkers. This is not a performance appraisal, but insight into your personal energy. Also, just as you should have a yearly physical, take a yearly assessment of compassion fatigue using the Compassion Satisfaction/Fatigue Self-Test for Helpers.

Sadness and sorrow are signs that you are a deeply caring person, but these emotions are meant to flow through you, not become you. It’s when they are stuck that they become the cholesterol of care. In the last blog I spoke of Tonglen, a powerful exercise in compassion. The next best step it to process suffering through your body – exercise. To prevent that from becoming another failed new year’s resolution, begin not with a plan, but a reason. Know why you’re exercising – so you can feel renewed vitality in life, have energy to hike with your kids, or as a deliberate act of celebrating life itself. This is the motivation to keep before you, and it will only stick if it’s enjoyable, if it gives you purpose, not pressure.  These two steps, mindfulness and exercise, will ensure your compassionate care does not fatigue. They are measures that not only improve satisfaction at work, but improve overall quality of life.

For more information on compassion fatigue, explore https://www.tendacademy.ca/what-is-compassion-fatigue/

Motivation sticks only when it gives you purpose, not pressure. – David Maginley

Question: What steps will you take this year to care for yourself while you care for others?

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