Burnout and compassion fatigue are terms carers regularly hear when caring for someone with a mental illness.
There is no doubt that caring for someone can be a demanding, stressful and exhausting role. It's also common to be told to look after yourself and prevent burnout. But, at times it can be difficult to know when we are feeling normal pressures or when it’s something more.
So what exactly is burnout? How can you tell if you are experiencing it? And how can you stop it from happening?
Burnout is the state of feeling emotionally and physically exhausted as a result of being exposed to excessive and prolonged periods of stress. When we are exposed to these periods it’s common to feel overwhelmed by the amount of caring undertaken, or to feel undervalued or unappreciated. If these feelings are present then you may be at risk of developing burnout.
Signs and symptoms to be aware of include:
- Physical exhaustion, where you feel tired most of the time and may even feel as though you are not able to complete tasks to the same standard you once did
- Changes in appetite, either eating for comfort or losing your appetite all together
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Frequent headaches and tension
- Lowered immunity resulting in frequent sickness
- Loss of motivation
- Feeling helpless
- Increased cynicism and negative view of current situation
- Decreased satisfaction or sense of accomplishment
- Feeling a sense of guilt or shame, or doubting your skills and ability to assist the person you care for
- Social withdrawal
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope
Many of these symptoms are also experienced in a depressive episode and can feel just as overwhelming. If you feel you are experiencing these symptoms it’s important to act now and prevent the effects of burnout becoming even more consuming or devastating.
Some strategies that can be helpful in preventing burnout include:
A balanced and healthy diet
Eating well allows your body access to all the nutrients it needs to function well and assists to maintain a healthy immune system. This can aid in negating the effects of prolonged stress.
Physical activity is not only a great way to help manage stress, it also releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel happier and more positive.
Increase your social activity
Surrounding yourself with supportive people and increasing the time you spend with them is a great way to feel supported and reduce stress levels.
Take more time for yourself
You can use this time to do whatever you consider to be a relaxing activity. This could be quiet time to read a book, do some yoga, have a bath, meditate, go for a walk, or any other activity that works for you.
Start a hobby
Hobbies are a great way to disconnect from things in your life and unwind. If you don’t have a hobby, then think of some things you would like to try. Having a new, novel activity can be a helpful release.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is important to the functioning of our body and can assist during times of stress. If you are feeling tired, make sure you set a goal to get more sleep. You can also read SANE’s ’10 tips for sleep hygiene’.
Reduce your intake of alcohol, drugs, caffeine and sugar
These substances can have an impact on your overall health. They can also exacerbate the symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression depending on the substance. Reducing these will be helpful for your physical health and mood.
Maintain clear boundaries
While everyone’s boundaries will be different depending on the situation, a helpful tip to remember is that it is ok to say ‘no’. It's important to take time out for yourself and being firm about this can help you maintain your boundaries.
Seek professional advice
Sometimes speaking with a psychologist or counsellor can be help re-frame the negative view developed during burnout. They can help you change the perception of the caring role and assist in setting up and implementing boundaries.
These strategies are things we know we should be doing every day, but our priorities are often centred around the person we care for. While it is great to support others when they are not well, it is impossible to care for others when your own reserves are low.
For this reason, it is important to re-evaluate your priorities and start putting yourself first. This is an extremely hard thing to do, particularly for people who are born carers or people who have high levels of empathy. However, to be truly effective in your caring role you must first fulfil your obligation to yourself and care for your own health and wellbeing.