Compassion fatigue – do you know what it is?
The textbook definition has many pieces depending on where you look. The one that I think fits best for many people living within the world of brain injury goes something like this – extreme fatigue or emotional distress because one has spent all of their own energy caring for others. This exhaustion can become so severe that an individual caring for others becomes incapacitated. This level of fatigue can cause the caregiver to become ill to the point of hospitalization, and when this occur, the system set up to support one individual has failed the other.
The flip side of this can be seen with family members, volunteers or others that want to help someone recover, and spend a great deal of time assisting a family, organization or group. Repeated requests for help to those that are “helpful” can quickly deplete their ability to continue to be there, resulting in losing that individual from further help in the future. People have lives outside of their “helping mode” and when those lives need attention, the attention for those that need help is reduced.
Families living with and helping those with a brain injury begin to realize the true extent of this process early on in the journey. Brain injuries heal slowly; recovery can take months and years to reach a stable level, although ongoing recovery in small ways can continue for a lifetime. This thought can be incredibly daunting when you are facing 20, 30 or even 40 years with someone that needs ongoing assistance in their lives.
Those living with a brain injury face the opposite side of this ordeal – an individual depending on someone to help them navigate the areas of their lives that are difficult face uncertainty and worry when the one person or people in their lives begin to fade. Some individuals may not notice a change in their world, but others, relying on that help, may see their support and comfort slowly disappearing. This change can cause changes in their own behaviors, ability to cope in their lives, and even health issues.
Caregivers face a lot of challenges in the ongoing support of an individual with a brain injury. Whether their loved one needs continues medical, financial, and ongoing care, or they just need help navigating through parts of a day or social situations, compassion fatigue can easily become a reality.
So how can anyone make it through a lifetime of caregiving without losing the strength and ability to endure?
They key to caregiving is to put yourself first.
For many this seems to be counterintuitive – how does helping oneself help another?
The hard truth is this – if you don’t take care of yourself first, you cannot take care of those around you. Think about the instructions everyone receives as an airplane is taking off – “make sure to put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping those around you.”
When you take the time to ensure that you are well, then you can give energy to those that need it.
While the picture of what this looks like is different for everyone, you can be sure that the end result is the same. When we eat well, exercise, get rest, and ensure that we have relationships outside of the caregiving role, we increase the odds of successful partnering. It is with this idea of self-care that a balance can be forged between the energy going to care for another, and the energy to ensure that the caregiver can keep going.
When it feels like it is almost too much to deal with, it is already too much.