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Compassion Fatigue and BurnoutHow Do You Cope?

Burnout. We have likely all felt it from time to time. The pandemic has exacerbated it. We may experience it differently based on our career, family situation, and access to resources. Regardless, burnout is physically and mentally damaging.

According to WebMD, Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. In many cases, burnout is related to one’s job. Burnout happens when you’re overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands (WebMD. 2020).

We hear a lot about job burnout, but what happens when you experience LIFE burnout? Most of my adult life has involved caregiving. I became a mom at age 21. I worked in healthcare. I volunteered as a First Responder. I worked in a youth treatment and living facility. For the past 25+ years, I have worked in health and wellness, primarily working with people with chronic conditions. My client base is over the age of 65. Six years ago, I moved my widowed, elderly mother from Texas to live with us. My siblings who lived closer to her could not take care of her because of their own issues they were dealing with. Long story there, but the caregiving fell on me 1,200 miles away. I had been handling everything well. I do enjoy helping others. I feel that is my purpose. Then, the pandemic hit.

2020 led me, as many others, to work from home. I was home ALL the time. My life revolved around checking in on my clients and class participants through online programs and keeping my now 93-year-old mother from ending up in the hospital with COVID-19. I stayed away from others, including my little granddaughters to keep everyone safe. Some days I felt like I was doing a good job. Other days I felt like I was the only one trying. I’m sure we have all felt like that since March 2020. My siblings, who were in other states, did not take the virus seriously. One even called it a hoax, no worse than the flu, and just an attempt to discredit and bring down the current president. I would have loved to see others, but I knew they were not isolating. If I saw them, I would be “visiting” everyone they visited with.

Here we are almost a year and a half later. We are all vaccinated in my house. My mom stayed well even when my husband brought COVID home. I managed to take care of her without transmitting it thanks to masks, handwashing, living in the basement, and lots of Lysol. She’s 94. Although I was a bit hesitant, the decision was made to start some in-person programs at the beginning of August. We required masks and registration to keep class sizes small. I knew my clients with Parkinson’s Disease especially needed socialization. The lack of socialization this past year and a half has affected them negatively. Research shows it (Subramanian, I., Farahnik, J. & Mischley, L.K. 2020) Although I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work with my mom requiring more caregiving now, I set off to start working in person again. As you know from my last post, that did not last thanks to the Delta variant and unvaccinated, unmasked Iowans.

Back to burnout. Dealing with the pandemic has been difficult and exhausting for all of us. Trying to counteract misinformation about the pandemic is exhausting. I know I have people in my programs that are high risk and still refuse to get vaccinated. I am responsible for the wellness of others and take the responsibility seriously, especially with the pandemic. That required a complete turnaround of in-person programs back to online programs. My mom’s cognitive health is getting worse. One day she talks about the virus, the next she does not understand why she cannot get a perm when none of the hairstylists wear masks and hospitalizations from the Delta variant have skyrocketed. She is vaccinated, but she is also 94. Do I continue to protect her or say, “whatever” and send her to CostCutters? I tend to lean towards safety. I love my granddaughters and would do anything in the world for them. They are starting school and went to the state fair and I am worried about them. My siblings are not any help with my mom and actually make things worse most of the time when they talk with her by phone. I am still dealing with long-haul COVID fatigue and headaches. It is difficult to eat sometimes because a lot of food smells like sewage, which was a nice little addition to the long-haul symptoms. I am exhausted physically and mentally, and I’m hitting burnout.

The symptoms of caregiver burnout are similar to the symptoms of stress and depression. They include:

  • Withdrawal from friends, family and other loved ones.

  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.

  • Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless and helpless.

  • Changes in appetite, weight or both.

  • Changes in sleep patterns.

  • Getting sick more often.

  • Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring.

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion.

  • Irritability.

I do try to make time for self-care, which we are told to do, but I will skip it if someone needs me. Yeah, I know that is not how it is supposed to work. I hesitate sometimes to reach out because I know people who are much worse off than I am. I’m thankful that I no longer work in a hospital. My heart aches for the frontline workers who cannot get a break from the sick and dying in a pandemic. How much long-term stress can we all take?

I recommend this PDF, Coping with Stress and Compassion Fatigue, from SAMSA. Recommendations to manage stress includes:

  • Balanced, nutritious diet

  • Regular exercise, meditation, and mindfulness

  • Routine schedule of restful sleep

  • Balance between work and leisure

  • Honoring emotional needs

I think most of all, we as caregivers need a plan. It is great to know the recommendations for managing stress, but how do we IMPLEMENT them? How do we take care of ourselves when we literally feel like we are drowning and cannot come up for breath? I have actually written, “10 minutes on the treadmill” in empty space on my calendar. Am I consistent? No, but I am trying. That is what we can do. Keep trying. It is not going to be perfect. We will have those days when we cannot focus. We just keep trying.

Hang in there. Let me know how you are coping.

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