Caregiver Compassion Fatigue: Self-Care Is Not Your Enemy

Picture this: Marvel needs a new superhero — a character who’s an awesome parent, a devoted spouse, an overachieving employee, and a committed caregiver to an aging parent.

You may not think of yourself as a superhero. But that’s what you are. No, your life may not be as thrilling as a superhero’s, with everyone cheering you on — but you are amazing. Not everyone can do what you do.

But you probably already know firsthand that the role of caregiver may lead to physical, mental, and emotional strain if you overwork yourself. Usually, only the patient gets the care and attention. That means you could be at risk for caregiver depression, compassion fatigue, or caregiver burnout.

What Are Caregiver Depression, Compassion Fatigue, and Caregiver Burnout?

  • Caregiver depression is when your role causes a drastic change in your mood — such as feeling sad, anxious, or empty — that prevents you from leading a normal life.
  • Compassion fatigue occurs when your caregiving duties lead you to feel helpless, hopeless, unempathetic, and isolated — especially when you are caring for someone you fear is suffering because of their illness.
  • Caregiver burnout is when your role causes you to become emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted due to stress.

Here’s how to recognize whether the caregiver role has taken a toll on your health — and ways to take care of yourself.

    Fast Facts About Caregiver Health

  1. Between 40 and 70% of caregivers show signs of depression.
  2. 11% of caregivers report that caregiving has led to a decline in their physical health.
  3. 55% of caregivers miss their own medical appointments.
  4. 72% of caregivers don’t go to their health care provider as often as they should.
  5. 21% of women in caregiver roles have mammograms less often than non-caregivers, putting their own health needs aside in order to care for others.

Caregiver Depression

Between 40% and 70% of caregivers show signs of depression — while 25% to 50% of them meet the criteria for a diagnosis of major depression.

There are two forms of depression associated with caregiving.

1. Dysthymic Disorder

Dysthymic disorder (DO) is a mild form of depression. If you live with DO, you may find it difficult to concentrate or sleep throughout the night. You may also have poor eating habits.

Symptoms of dysthymic disorder include:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Lack of energy

These feelings are serious and do not just go away — they persist year after year.

2. Major Depression

Major depression is typically far more severe than dysthymic disorder. Its symptoms can be crippling to your health. The feelings with major depression are so severe that you may not be able to function in your day-to-day life.

If you live with major depression, you’ve probably told yourself one of the following statements:

  • I used to love [fill in a favorite activity], but I just don’t feel like it anymore.
  • I rarely have an appetite anymore and my clothes are beginning to fit differently.
  • I toss and turn throughout the night — and oversleep when I need to get up.
  • I have no energy to do anything anymore.
  • I give up, it’s pointless to keep trying.
  • I know it’s my fault, I can never do anything right.
  • I don’t know why I try to dress up, I always look a mess.
  • I overanalyze everything and can never make up my mind.
  • I know they’ll be better off without me.

These symptoms tend to last for 2 consecutive weeks or longer.


If you are having suicidal thoughts — as if you don’t want to live anymore and want to end your own life — call 9-1-1 or get emergency help right away. You can also call a suicide hotline number. In the US, call (800) 273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach the toll-free, 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline where you can speak with a trained counselor.


How to Get Help for Caregiver Depression and Dysthymic Disorder

If you believe you have dysthymic disorder or major depression, stop right here. It’s too easy to dismiss these symptoms and skip getting help. The next best thing you can do for yourself is at least talk to someone.

Contact Stormont Vail Health’s Behavioral Health Center to talk to a specialist who can help. This may include treating your depression using therapy, medication, or both.

Antidepressant medications help relieve symptoms of depression 70 percent of the time. A therapist can help you decide if medication is right for you. It’s important to remember that everyone is different. What may work for one person may not work for you.

Compassion Fatigue and Caregiver Burnout

Compassion fatigue, caregiver burnout, stress, and anxiety go hand in hand.

Caregiver Anxiety

Feeling anxious every once in a while is a normal part of life. This is usually a temporary reaction to stress.

But when feeling anxious begins to interfere with your day-to-day life, this may be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) — persistent and excessive worrying about multiple things. GAD is a diagnosable and treatable condition.

Caregivers who provide care for a family member 36 hours or more per week are more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety than non-caregivers.

Caregivers who live with anxiety disorders feel a loss of control and constant fear of the unknown.

Common signs to recognize clinical anxiety are:

  • Frequent shortness of breath
  • Difficulty eating
  • Heart racing
  • Constant irritability
  • Excessive sweating

Caregiver Stress

Stress is your body and mind’s reaction to outside pressures and demands. Acute stress is short-term, while chronic stress is long-term and causes internal damage to your body.

Over 50% of caregivers work 40 or more hours a week — and 37 percent feel that their caregiver role is highly stressful.

Caregivers may be at a higher risk for substance abuse to cope as their chronic stress levels rise.

Physical signs of stress include:

  • Headaches
  • Lacking energy
  • Stomach illnesses, such as diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
  • Body pains
  • Insomnia

How to Get Help for Caregiver Anxiety and Stress

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these signs and symptoms, please consult your health care provider or contact a Stormont Vail behavioral health provider. They can work with you to determine the type of treatment that is appropriate for your anxiety.

Recognizing when you’re on the path to compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout — and implementing small acts to improve your mood — could help prevent you from developing depression.

Self-Care Tips: How to Put Yourself First

When was the last time you went to your health care provider? And not for a family member, but for yourself? Or what about the last time you went to the gym or did your favorite activity?

If you’re like most caregivers, it’s been a while.

Around 72 percent of caregivers don’t go to their health care provider as often as they should, and 55% of caregivers miss their medical appointments.

Since women tend to be caregivers more often than men, they may miss out on important women’s health screenings, like mammograms, because their caregiving responsibilities are so time-consuming. About 21% of women in caregiver roles have mammograms less often than non-caregivers.

All of this self-neglect leads to more than 1 in 10 caregivers to report a decline in their physical health as a result of their role. In fact, compared to non-caregivers, more than twice as many caregivers are living with chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis.

You have one life to live — and you should take care of yourself while you have the chance. It is okay to take a break from your responsibilities and get help. You will be a better spouse, parent, and caregiver once you’ve allowed yourself a chance to relax.

Here are small steps you can take towards larger goals of self-care. Try some of these over the next 30 days:

  • Eating healthy: Start with eating breakfast every day and eating at least three servings of something green. Don’t skip any meals and keep energy-boosting snacks on hand.
  • Staying hydrated: Try drinking 8 glasses of water each day. Your body needs more water when you are physically active and constantly moving throughout the day. To switch things up, you can make infused water to get the health benefits from fruits without having to consume them.
  • Get enough sleep: Aim to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Your health and body depend on being allowed time to rest. Once in a while, take time to catch up on your beauty sleep.
  • Pamper yourself: Take time every so often to get your hair or nails done, take yourself out on a date, or schedule a night out with your spouse. Incorporate exercise or physical activities into your daily routine. Exercise can help improve depression, heart health, and sleep quality.

Make sure to consult your health care provider before making changes to your lifestyle habits. You can also ask your health care provider if they know of any support groups or caregiver support organizations. These resources can be helpful outlets for finding tips on practicing self-care and problem-solving and developing positive coping strategies needed for the caregiving role.

They can also point you in the direction of finding support services. Oftentimes, a lack of caregiver support services contributes to caregiver fatigue.

Support resources may include:

  • Day programs for your parents
  • Respite care programs (short-term care for your parent, either in-home or at a healthcare adult care facility)
  • Hourly hired attendants

These resources can allow you as the caregiver to make time for yourself, such as attending your own medical appointments, going shopping, etc.

Caregiver Resources

Ask your primary care provider about Stormont Vail’s care managers and social workers. Care managers and social workers can put you in touch with community resources for caregivers and talk to you about staying physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy as a caregiver.

Call (785) 270-4440 to set up an appointment with a Stormont Vail Health primary care provider.

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